Love in Code

 “Love Finds a Way,” D.W Griffith wrote in 1909, but it wasn’t any easier in those primitive days before computers. A person had to find a date or mate in person, through friends, school, work or church. Chances are you had seen this person around before any romantic connection was attempted, offering preliminary screening. In my 20s, it all seemed uncertain and labor-intensive. Imagine my excitement when I heard about the first computer matching system back in the mid 1960s.

The ad said an applicant would pay a monthly fee ($15, as I recall), fill out a form (using a #2 pencil, please), detailing demographics, interests, favorite places to go and any non-negotiables.

I was 23, recently hired as an adjunct professor in the political science department at Cal State Northridge after earning a Master’s degree. I was living at home until I could save up enough to move to my own apartment closer to the University. I had been an active dater in college and in the interim between the college degrees, but somehow the Master’s became a Maginot line. I was apparently too well educated, too well traveled and probably too picky. It was a fallow period for dating.
So when I saw the ad in the paper for this new computer dating service, I was intrigued and decided to take the risk. Computers then were novelties, large enough to consume entire rooms. They were supposed to be smarter and faster than human beings. What did I have to lose?

I toiled over the two-page survey for an hour or so, checking the boxes for someone who had an advanced degree, was politically liberal and lacking in traditional religious convictions. I licked the envelope and drove it over to the Post Office, concerned that my conservative parents might be worried about the risks if they knew. Within a week, I received a printout in the mail of the names and phone numbers of three men within my geographical area. No photos, no demographic information. While I contemplated what to do next, the phone rang. It was one of my “matches.”

Murray told me he worked for a City Councilman, was unmarried and 39. He wanted to take me out for dinner the following Friday night. Because this was imminent and came with an unexpected age gap, I thought it best to inform my parents. I made a mental note to escalate my financial planning.

Friday night at 7, the doorbell rang and my mother answered the door, as she always did when I was in high school. Right on her heels, I reached over and shook his hand. Murray was not conventionally handsome but nice enough looking for me to be interested. We walked to his car and he opened the door for me, an archaic custom universally practiced back then. This was my first date with a man in a prestigious occupation and I hardly knew what to say. He wasn’t exactly garrulous, either, so it was pretty quiet all the way to the Fox and Hounds restaurant in Santa Monica. I asked him about his job, which turned out to be the most interesting thing about him. He didn’t seem particularly interested in mine, which was OK. We were still feeling each other out. In fact, he was making bold attempts to do just that. Almost as soon as we ordered, his hands wandered under the white linen covered table, worming his way inside my clothing. I was so surprised, shocked really, that I didn’t know what to say. I moved away. With each course, he would move in again. This man was clearly more interested in sex than food, the direct opposite of my priorities. I wondered what was coming after dessert.

Since we were already in West Los Angeles, he told me he wanted me to see his office, and that of his boss, the famous City Councilman. That seemed like a secure setting and, since I taught political science, I was genuinely interested. He used several keys to gain entrance into the ornate inner sanctum within the large Civic Center. Once in the office, there were stacks of papers on a cluttered desk, framed photos of important politicians and celebrities everywhere and four phones scattered throughout tables in the large room. Was this his office or the Councilman’s? I was about to ask when he hastily maneuvered me to a couch opposite the desk and started kissing me. Again with the busy hands. I would have expected this kind of gauchery from my college dates but not from a man of his age and life experience. Even stranger, there was hardly a word exchanged between us.

Within a few eternal minutes, there was an insistent pounding on the locked office door. Murray leaped up, tucked in his shirt and opened the door. I righted myself as well, not knowing who this rescuer might be. It was a uniformed police officer, gun drawn. Apparently, Murray had failed to turn off the silent alarm. Relieved for the moment, I hoped I would not be arrested for breaking and entering. Somehow, he found his voice and reassured the officer he belonged there. Once the officer was gone, I asked to be taken home. Enough, already.

There were other computer dates, in fact, many of them. I often received eight or nine names and numbers a month and most of them called for a date. After going out so often I found (especially after I had moved to my own apartment) that I was becoming jaded. When the new man entered my living room and sat down, I began the interview.

“Why do you think we were matched?”

“Maybe it was education.” There were some Ph.D.s in the batch but the degree was inevitably in something in which I had close to zero interest. I had little in common with a man who spent all those years studying chemistry or classical Greek.

“What’s your favorite restaurant?” I would pursue, searching for some easy commonality, the typical level of conversation.
“Any burger joint.” I knew we were doomed.

There was one guy with an MA in economics who pulled up in a gold Rolls Royce. In the politically radical 1960s of which I was an active part, that was sufficient screening for me. We went for coffee and I never saw him again.

I did see one man for a while in spite of the fact he was an engineer like my father. They even worked at the same aircraft plant in Santa Monica. Emery was pleasant, took me to nice places and laughed at the same things I did. We spent many evenings going to plays and musicals, long a passion of mine and apparently, his. But there was absolutely zero chemistry, not helped along by some oral condition that made his mouth smell like something had died inside.

You might be surprised that I met most these men at my apartment. It was a different time, safer with stronger codes and rules about such things. It was considered riskier and socially unacceptable for an unaccompanied woman to meet a strange man in a bar. I usually spent enough time on the phone beforehand to get a sense of physical safety before inviting them in. That level of comfort would be far less likely today.

Over the course of the frequent dating, I probably met 15 or 20 men, a crash course in relating to the opposite sex via a computer match. Sadly, there were no real “hits” and an awful lot of “misses.” It was like a hobby for a while before boredom and a better opportunity extinguished my interest. The experiment went on for a year or so, until I met the person I thought to be the man of my dreams in the conventional way – at school.

Now, let’s move ahead. It’s the early 2000s. I had been married, divorced and subsequently discovered a woman with whom I had fallen in love. We were together more than 30 years before that relationship ended amid a flurry of lies and chemical abuse. After a year or so on my own, I wondered if I’d ever be in love again. I didn’t have many opportunities to meet eligible women and the men in my age group (by now in my 60s) were throwbacks to the era when women were “less than,” the target of sexist humor. So even though I was willing to date someone of either sex, I opted to search for a woman, thinking my odds of finding an equal were better.

Back in the 1960s, the computers belonged to the computer match company. I was dependent on their program to tell me who to date. But now there was a variety of options, almost overwhelming in diversity. Computer dating had become big business, many of them major corporations. Almost everyone had access to the internet and email. Sexual orientation was more fluid and deviations from the hetero “normality” of the ‘60s widely accepted.

I signed on with the ubiquitous and filled out the profile more carefully than I had forty years earlier. Now the criteria were more sophisticated and extensive. It seemed to portend well that I could screen people before meeting them, see a photo or two and could even “date” people in distant locations. I have to admit that last option was appealing. Having recently emerged from a long and difficult relationship, I wasn’t sure I wanted someone in close proximity.

Over the course of a couple of months, I emailed and Skyped with probably five or six women, only a few of whom lived near me. The ones I met at nearly restaurants were pleasant and affable but did not seem to reside on my planet. One was a school counselor with whom I played golf. When I hit the ball well, she shrieked that she was “so proud of” me, as if I were one of her students. She was uncommonly fond of the teen patois of the day, punctuating every emotion with “awesome.” While I found her attractive, I knew this would soon drive me over an edge.

So when Peg from New York emailed the computer version of a query letter, I was interested. Like me, she had a Ph.D. in psychology, enjoyed the arts and seemed urbane and sophisticated. She was Jewish, in fact very Jewish, she told me. But this wasn’t a deal breaker so long as it didn’t get in the way. In her online profile, she was nice-looking, seemed to take care of herself and had a warm smile.

We emailed for a few weeks then she wanted to Skype. At the appointed time, I sat down on my living room couch, and prepared to “meet.” She “showed me around” her apartment, a well-appointed and seemingly expensive two-bedroom on the west side of Manhattan and introduced me to her huge St. Bernard, Sherlock. I reciprocated, giving her a quick tour of my house and my beagle, Satchmo.

I could see she had knitting in her lap, so as an ice breaker, I asked her about it. For the next eight minutes or so (it seemed longer), she regaled me with every detail of her history with knitting, the techniques she used and her plans for future projects. If there had been a pause, I would have interjected something, even more likely had I been a knitter. I thought perhaps she was nervous about this encounter as was I. We had shared some personal history via email but it’s not the same as talking face-to-face.

At the first opening, I tried again, commenting on a play I was going to that night with a friend. She jumped in. She had been to a play the night before, too, and proceeded to outline the plot, quote the reviews and strongly suggested I plan to see it when I’m in New York. By this time, I was nearly stunned into silence and thought it best to end this first “conversation.” As I prepared to shut it down, she asked when we could do this again, suggesting the following week.

I have historically been quick to cut people off so I vowed to give Peg a chance to see who she was, while hoping for an opportunity for reciprocity. The following Sunday, I sat down in my customary spot and logged on. In her favor, she was comely and obviously had good taste in décor. I started to say something when from the periphery of the screen came a sloppy Sherlock, bounding on top of her, practically knocking the computer to the ground.

“Is he always so exuberant?” I asked, laughing.
“Oh, sure. He’s a sweetie.”
“But how do you manage him in an apartment in the middle of New York City?” I was trying to imagine dog walks in the snow, him dragging her along behind. And knowing she had a demanding job uptown, wondering how the apartment looked when she returned home each day.
“He’s very well behaved, aren’t you, Sherlock?”
Yeah, I could see that. Now he was slobbering on the keyboard and I expected either a quick execution or an abrupt ending to the conversation.
“I’ve been thinking of taking a trip to see you. What do you think about that?”
Oops. We had “known” each other for a matter of weeks. Still, I had experienced these sudden commitment approaches before. One of my matches in Minnesota told me it would only take her a few days to pack up the U-Haul and come to California. I didn’t have time to respond to Peg before she began to press.
“I have relatives on the coast. I could stay with you for a few days then drive down there to visit them. How does January sound?”

I’m normally quick on my feet but this turn left me speechless. Still, I told myself, it might be fun and you’d certainly get to know each other better.

“Sure. Just let me know when it’s convenient.”

January was less than a month away. I met her at the airport, gave her a hug and we drove back to my house. Still feeling skittish about the whole thing, I set her up in the guest bedroom, leaving the options open. After she had unpacked, we sat down in the living room. I was ready to start a meaningful conversation when her cell rang.

“Hi, honey. Yes, I’m with Pam now.” She proceeded to tell the person on the other end of the phone about her plane trip, the layovers, what she had to eat at the airport and a description of my house. Shortly, I realized this must be her grown, married son, Ted, with whom she was obviously very close. The conversation went on for maybe ten minutes. When she hung up, I politely asked, “How’s Ted doing?”

You’d think by now, I would have discovered that simple questions seldom had simple answers. I was still laboring under a flat learning curve. I heard in detail what Ted (but not his wife) had been doing all day. After a suitable period of time, I interrupted to suggest we go to dinner. Peg was a vegetarian, so I had decided not to try to prepare meals for her. I found a restaurant with veggie options, which I hoped would please her. All the way to the restaurant and even while we waited to be seated, she talked. And talked.

We each ordered a glass of wine. I waited for her to take a sip so I could say something. By now, I knew this was not the woman of my dreams. Even more, I wondered how I would survive her visit. There had now been several Skype conversations and maybe six hours together without any real dialogue. I decided to take a risk.

“You know, Peg, I’m really happy you’re here. I’m hoping it’ll give us uninterrupted time to get to know each other, but I’m having trouble inserting myself in here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to say this, but…you talk…a lot. You don’t speak in sentences. You speak in essays.” I had hoped she’d see the humor but it went over her head.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve never been told that.”
Is it possible all her New York friends just zoned out during her monologues? Or did they find her sagas fascinating? Was I being too impatient?
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I want to get to know you. And to tell you who I am.
“So tell me, already.”
I wasn’t prepared to give a presentation.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I had hoped we’d talk and….”
She jumped right in. “What I really want is to jump your bones.”
Not having heard that expression since junior high, I tried not to look as startled as I felt.
She continued, as I knew she would.
“My sexuality is very male and I’m ready any time.”
I knew I needed to say something and fast.
“I’m not quite ready for that. We don’t even know each other.”
“I know but it doesn’t matter to me.”

I suspected as much. Our interaction, such as it was, was strangely impersonal and, needless to say, one-sided.

We finished our dinner and came back to the house. More of the monologues, along with several more phone calls with her son. By the time I said goodnight and made my way to my own side of the house, my head was stuffed with words, on neurological overload. I could hardly think. I could almost hear my ears ringing.

The next few days were filled with activities, anything to distract her and make the time go faster. When we parted, it was with considerably less warmth than the initial greeting. I did not tell her that the attraction I initially felt had been smothered by the plethora of words, that she didn’t give me enough of a person with whom to bond. I could tell she was irritated and probably disappointed, too. Earlier she had talked about finding a nickname for me, assuming we’d be life partners soon. She had started looking up travel schedules so we could visit each other at regular intervals. Since there was no space for a response. I didn’t tell her I didn’t like any of those ideas. But perhaps my lack of interruptions made the point more than if I had.

After Peg, I gave up computer dating. While the technology had advanced considerably over the four-decade interlude, the likelihood of finding a meaningful relationship using two-dimensional criteria had not improved much at all. The two adventures in computer dating that happened in widely-separated eras of my life were fun but weird and unsatisfying. In the wisdom that comes from experience, I realize there’s no way to quantify human emotion, much less that elusive biochemical attraction that can lead to love.

Pam Munter

About Pam Munter

Pam Munter has authored several books and a couple dozen articles, mostly about dead movie stars. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Pam is working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Angels Flight—Literary West, and Persephone’s Daughters. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.

Pam Munter has authored several books and a couple dozen articles, mostly about dead movie stars. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Pam is working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Angels Flight—Literary West, and Persephone’s Daughters. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.

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