Sunday, August 29, 2010

Modern Day Fairy Tales

I don't think I've ever really believed in fairy tales, Disney or Grimm or otherwise. The idea of falling asleep and waiting for some prince - who was obviously attractive and wonderful - to come and wake me with a kiss didn't ever really seem likely. 'Happily ever after' still seemed plausible, but I never expected to have a meaningful relationship with local fauna nor believe they would sew the dress I'd wear when meeting my beloved.

It doesn't really add up, then, that I discovered myself buying in to a whole new version of the fairytale story, version 2010. Internet dating tries to purport an idea of relationships almost completely opposed to any damsel-in-distress/knight-in-shining armor love story. The more obvious message of commercials for, eHarmony, or the hundred other dating sites tries to be, "You've got to make your magic. Seek and ye shall find, but ya gotta do some seeking." So when you take a deep breath and delve into those deep, deep questions of life (What's your career? What's your next big goal? Do you prefer dogs or cats or none of the above?) you feel proactive. Finally! you think. I am going to stop wishing and start taking control of my love life.

But there's more to it than that. We are still being sold on a dream, but now it's a dream deferred. And while the eHarmony commercials are especially good at making you feel like you're just one more personal survey question or one more email correspondence away from The One, it's also a fairytale story that Hollywood is selling to online daters (and some online daters are selling to each other). Here's a popular one:

A girl on a dating site is meeting some nice people, but none of them are really anyone she cares to see again. She goes away for a week to her brother's wedding, which she leaves with the takeaway that love is possible and comes when you least expect it. She decides to take a break from online dating and just live her life - a fun life, at that - for the time being and hope for the best.

Then, she's emailed by a guy who she'd been conversing with before the wedding. She had planned to meet him but was sick and had to cancel the date right before she went away for the family event. When he emails again, she feels guilty for not getting back in touch and has a first date. It goes pretty well, and there is a second. She realizes she's interested in him and gets excited for their third date, a low key affair.

But then! He calls at the last minute to suggest a much fancier plan and she has to mentally switch from county-fair casual to four-star restaurant chic. She excitedly tells her friends, and slips out of the office to buy a new dress for the night. Her work day is slow until the very last minute, when she falls into an urgent, rush project and almost misses the date! Somehow, she makes it home in time to gussy herself up in the new dress and has a wonderful dinner with Third Date Guy. Third Date Guy makes an overt promise to be, at the very least, her Fourth Date Guy and they end the night with a kiss.

Isn't that a beautiful story? The kind that rom-com's are made of? I can just see Jennifer Lopez running frantically to some wonderful NYC boutique and having a dress-me-up montage while her married coworker looks on with approving and hopeful eyes. But the parts that don't fit in to the cliche are the ones that make it real: he's just getting out of an 8-year relationship at the age of 26; he suggests they split the bill; he makes no effort for a fourth date and instead schedules a "break up" phone call.

I'm a little bitter (at least bitter enough to write this post) but not really with the guy - I'm bitter that I was eating up all of the 'clues' that made this feel like my last foray in the online dating world for at least awhile. The "We were supposed to meet but I had to cancel our first date" or "I'd given up until so-and-so emailed me" clue. The "he changed his plans around so he could see me" clue. The "he wanted to up the ante on our date and take me to a fancy restaurant" clue, and finally, the "I almost didn't make it to that date because of a work crisis, and wouldn'tcha know that's when we fell in love!" potentiality. All of that seemed to add up like basic math to the perfect eHarmony commercial or Success Story post.

In retrospect, it was just as ridiculous as if I'd somehow lost a shoe while walking and, instead of stopping to pick it up like any logical human being, expected the person who chased me down with the shoe to be the man of my dreams and heir to a throne. But when you find yourself in the middle of what appears to be a fairytale, you don't want to fight the possibility that Walt Disney was right all along and dreams do come true.

I'm sure it works like that for some people, or those little details wouldn't have felt so familiar. But I think what I'm realizing now is that every one has a different love story. If it starts to feel like a tale I've heard before, then it's probably not the one for me. No one likes plagiary, and I shouldn't be so eager to accept it in my life's story.