Goodbye, My Fantasy Man – The New York Times


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I wasn’t willing to settle for less than kismet. But chasing a romantic illusion nearly kept me from finding love.
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The night I agreed to try online dating, I told my roommate Meghan I hoped I wouldn’t meet anyone because that wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell.
“I know myself,” I said. “Anything short of kismet won’t work.”
I have always loved the word “kismet.” Arabic in origin (from “qisma,” meaning portion or lot), it’s just a nerdy synonym for fate. But from a young age, I have believed in it, searched for it and trusted I would find it.
This is my parents’ fault.
My mother and father met at a party in Boston when she was 22 and he was 17. My father was tall and slender with a pointy goatee, and when he crashed the party carrying his classical guitar, my mother took one look and told a friend, “He’s the one for me. I’m going to marry him.”
“I’d better introduce you, then,” the friend said, leading her to him. “Dolly, meet Wally. You’re made for each other.”
My parents went home together that night, and six weeks later they stole my aunt’s car and drove cross-country to San Francisco. They were beatniks, so they headed to City Lights Books, where the owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, fed them spaghetti and whiskey and let them stay a night in the store basement.
After some time in the city, though, their cash ran out, so they called my grandmother and lied, saying they had eloped. She wired money and they returned to Boston, where they posed as newlyweds to live together.
About a year later, they borrowed a friend’s Triumph roadster and drove to North Carolina, where they could elope without parental consent. They were married for 43 years, until my father died in 2004.
So the thought of “We met online” didn’t exactly weaken my knees.
Nonetheless, rounding 40, never married and growing impatient, I composed a long profile that included my favorite books, music and films. When I reached the question “What are you looking for in a relationship?”, I couldn’t help myself.
“Kismet,” I wrote. “Is that so much to ask?”
Meghan had convinced me to start online dating by promising she would do it with me. To cover our bases, we registered on two sites: OkCupid (which was free) and eHarmony (which was definitely not). Soon Meghan began going on dates, returning to our San Francisco apartment with accounts of cringe-worthy misrepresentations and awkward conversations.
I stayed home. I’d spotted zero signs of kismet (not even any artistic or literary overlap), and I refused to settle for less.
Sometimes Meghan would carry her laptop into my bedroom. Once she said, “I found someone for you. He’s cute and funny, but too short for me.” (I’m 5-foot-1.) Another time, we received the same message from the same guy: “I’m sorry, but I just have to lay it on the line and let you know, despite the fact you hear it all the time, that you’re undeniably, effortlessly and strikingly attractive.”
I grew discouraged. From what I could tell, the internet was where kismet went to die.
Then one day I noticed a guy who looked handsome, seemed smart and claimed to bake pies. Who doesn’t like a handsome, smart man who bakes pies? Also, he had filled in the prompt “Contact me if ___” with “you want to get out of town.” I was a traveler, always wanting to get out of town — so I “favorited” him, the OkCupid equivalent of sending over a drink.
After two days of flirtatious banter, I finally broached the question that had been bothering me: “You listed favorite music and films, but no books. Was that an oversight, or do you not read?”
“Recorded music has always spoken to me the way the written word speaks to most,” he replied.
I shut my computer. I was the daughter of bookshop owners, a lifelong collector of signed first editions and an author. Discussing literature was the height of stimulation. Reading was fundamental to my identity.
A few days later, he messaged: “Seems like you may be looking for a bookworm, which is fine. However, you should be aware that I am a word nerd. I suggest this matter be resolved with a Scrabble match.”
Then he started inserting high-scoring words like “zootaxy” into messages. The ploy worked; we made tenuous plans to meet for Scrabble the following week.
Two nights later, heading home from my waitressing job, I boarded a bus and sat down next to an attractive man who looked a lot like the word nerd’s profile picture. I couldn’t be sure, and I was too nervous to sneak a confirming glance. Also, it was past midnight on a public bus — not the time or place to study strangers’ faces.
Instead, I stared at my phone and said nothing. What are the chances, I wondered, in a city of roughly 800,000? But after three stops, when he got off in the neighborhood where he had told me he lived, I knew.
In the morning, I messaged him through OkCupid: “Were you on the 71 bus late last night? I sat next to someone who looked suspiciously like your photo.”
“Whoa,” he replied.
“Holy crap,” I wrote.
Our first date lasted 12 hours. We went to an art gallery, the farmers’ market and a cafe, where we played Scrabble. He seemed delighted when I won by 100 points. That night, we ate Ethiopian food with our hands then crossed the street to a music hall where he whisked me upstairs to the V.I.P. section to watch Meshell Ndegeocello sing in the dark.
The whole affair was straight out of a kismet textbook. So when he continued to not read novels, and when the ensuing weeks revealed more incompatibilities — he didn’t like coffee, hated to fly, and baked only one kind of pie (pumpkin, my least favorite) — I would think: But the universe put us together. And then I would give him another chance.
The chances paid off. Though he never drank coffee, he researched brewing techniques and learned to make a flawless French press, which he delivered to me in bed each morning. Once, as I was about to take my first sip, he rushed in. “Not yet!” he said, and dropped a pinch of salt into my cup. “OK, now.”
He also traveled with me, pale and quiet and pushing the call button repeatedly to ask how long the turbulence would last. He tried Xanax and Ambien. Nothing worked, but he swore his flight anxiety wouldn’t interfere with future adventures.
I was in love and happy, but doubts simmered. I still occasionally fantasized about a man who would sip coffee with me and read novels in bed on our frequent trips to India.
When I shared this with my therapist, she told me to “have a funeral for the death of romantic illusion.”
One February afternoon, he and I were playing Scrabble in the park when I reached into the bag of tiles hoping for the Q and pulled out a ring instead. I dropped it on the board as if I had been electrocuted. “What is that?”
“It’s a ring,” he said.
“What’s it doing here?”
“Will you make me the happiest man in the world?” he asked.
It has been eight years since I calmed down and somehow found the presence of mind to spell “Yes” in Scrabble tiles.
My husband still won’t touch coffee, but he continues to brew a sublime French press and occasionally even delivers me a lightly salted cup in bed. He still doesn’t go in for novels, but he’s easily read a thousand books to our 6-year-old son, who shares my passion for literature.
And though he hasn’t conquered his fear of flying, we developed a system: We take direct, daytime flights in calm weather, and if turbulence hits, he chugs two glasses of red wine and passes out. We haven’t yet made it to India, but we have been to Italy, Tunisia, Portugal, France, Spain and Morocco. I’ve even come around, slowly, to appreciating pumpkin pie. Somehow his tastes better.
Two years ago, we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the night we shared a bench seat on the 71 bus. With reservations at our favorite restaurant, we were dressed up and anticipating a four-course dinner, fine wine and uninterrupted conversation. But five minutes before our babysitter arrived, our son started vomiting, so we celebrated at home with our sick child tucked between us, watching a Disney movie on the couch.
So much for romantic illusion. And good riddance. It has taken me too long to understand that compatibility defies algorithms, and that kismet is less about fateful encounters and favorite books than it is about finding someone who’s eager to face his fears — and make coffee he doesn’t even drink — just to be with me.
Lavinia Spalding lives in New Orleans. Her latest book is “This Immeasurable Place.”
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