Online-love confusion

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 19, 2003

It was long-distance magic. But look! It’s fading! And he won’t say what happened!


Dear Cary,

It was the day before two terrifying exams, and there I was — flipping back and forth between my spreadsheets and the personals. It was an online browse, so idle that I hadn’t even searched: I was just looking for men who were looking for women and who were online at that moment. Then I saw his picture. Cute, I thought. Opened his profile: tall, I thought. Read a bit, and saw: charming, literate, similar interests and so forth. I then looked up to check his location and saw that it was an ocean away. Damn it, I thought. But on the other hand, I’m fond of correspondence as a procrastination technique, so I thought: why not? And dashed off a couple of lines, never expecting any response.

But I got one. And then another, and another, and another. You’ve heard this story a thousand times, I know: The verbal chemistry. The sense of intellectual, emotional, even physical connection, coming like a miracle from words on a screen. But knowing some of the pitfalls of that type of connection, after a bit I was no longer willing to keep it to those words on a screen. We both had some free time coming up; I said I needed either to see how this thing would play out face to face, or to call it quits. Quits wasn’t an option for him (though it would have been for me at that point — along with the feelings I was having came an enormous self-protective impulse), and having never been to his part of the world, I juggled some plans, got a ticket, and flew over.

It was magic, but not in the Harlequin-romance kind of way; we were two people in a situation unprecedented for both, and it was real and it was connected and (at least for me) mind- and soul-touching. Less bodice ripping than I’d expected, but restraint and — could it have been? — chivalry aren’t things I’d become accustomed to in men. And it was so easy to share space, to share hopes, fears and dreams; it was as if the scrim that separates and blurs so many nascent (or established) relationships simply didn’t exist.

And then I went home for my last term of grad school, looking mainly at postdegree options near home, but also one that would have brought me near him. And I told him about them all, not looking for promises or commitments on the latter — how could I have, based on something so ephemeral? But cool breezes were coming across the ocean. When I went back at midterm for an interview over there, it was all very cordial — but as if we were ex-colleagues meeting after one had left the firm, not two people who’d been powerfully drawn to each other, who’d dreamed big dreams together. So?

In the first intoxicating days we were getting to know each other, I asked for only one promise: that should things between us ever not seem right, that we’d talk, that we wouldn’t just let it fade away. But fading away is exactly what’s happened, and apart from the pain, it feels like such a waste. But the pain is there, and the loss, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why it happened like this — or why or how he just let go without a word. I’ve been as cool as I humanly can — no weepy “where are you” calls or messages, no scenes, slim-to-nil contact that mirrors his own — but damn, does it still hurt! Now I know in my head that if a man’s interested, he’ll make it known. And this one isn’t. And if he isn’t, then letting him see the extent of my grief won’t bring him back. And keeping up a “casual” correspondence with him is impossible for me; it would just stir up all the dreams and yearning yet again.

And yet — I feel like letting it go without really fighting for it could be a huge mistake, borne by my pride and fear and standing on ceremony. That’s the last thing I want. Is it brave to let go and put it out of my mind as best I can, or is it brave, having laid myself bare with him before, to do it once again (as given the status quo there’s really nothing much to lose)?

No Idea in New York

tuscanad_nov2016

Dear No Idea,

Sometimes laying yourself bare is the only way to get the truth. The relationship may or may not be worth fighting for, but the truth certainly is, and you ought to fight for that. Of course, if he’s British, as I suspect he is (I’m taking a leap, but that’s my job), what strikes you as the simple truth will strike him as an outrageously indiscreet revelation bordering on the obscene.

Figure it this way: If someone said he just wants to see what you look like, you’d be willing to appear before him, in public, in your corporeal self, right? You’d be showing him “what you look like.” But he might say he can’t really see what you look like at all with all those clothes on.

People can mean different things by “what you look like,” and they can mean different things by “the truth about what happened between us.” You can’t expect him to pour forth his most intimate feelings on cue. So you may have to craft some simple, direct questions that give you the outlines of his feelings, and sort of trace a picture, and then shade the picture and fill in the body yourself.

For instance, you would really like to know if he was ever in love with you, right? It might be painful, but you need to know. So you have to ask: “Were you ever in love with me?” If he says he was, ask him when that changed. Don’t ask him how, just ask him when. That will focus his mind on something, without committing him to discussing his feelings. In other words, did it change while you were together, or after you left? Did it change recently, or quite some time ago? On the other hand, if he says he was never in love with you, ask him if he was aware of how you felt about him. If he answers your question with a question, such as “Um, just how did you feel about me?” don’t answer. Instead, in turn, answer his question with a question. Ask him what he assumed you felt about him. Ask him what he thought.

You have to allow for the possibility that he knew quite well exactly how you felt about him, and he was just enjoying your attentions without any plan to reciprocate. If you’re in graduate school, you have to seek the truth.

There are a few other questions you could ask him, but I think you get the point: You need to get just a few facts so you can construct a little narrative for yourself: Here’s a picture of what happened to me. Here’s the car, here’s the accident, here’s me convalescing, here’s a calendar showing how long it took to heal, here’s my journal of how I got over it. And then look here at this photo, this is me, moving on. I’m the one on the horse! Can you believe how funny I look in a jockey suit?

There is one other thing about trying to get answers out of him if he’s British: You may have to frighten him. If you simply act like a sane, if somewhat direct, American woman looking for answers, he may give you nothing but the blandest of platitudes. You may have to play the crazy, demanding, selfish, ungovernable, hot-tempered, spoiled-rotten bitch-devil sex queen. If so, lay it on thick. Make a scene at his place of employment. Claim there’s a baby on the way. Whatever it takes.

And who knows, in the course of finding out the truth, you may uncover some feelings of his you didn’t know were there. Just because he’s behaving in a reserved way doesn’t mean he has no feelings for you. It just means he’s doing the right thing as defined by his culture. He may be crazy about you. He may think it’s you who doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. All you can do is find out.