My best friend back in New York made me a deal. She would go to the climbing gym and learn to belay if I would join OkCupid and go on one date.
“Just one date,” she said, “with one male who can bring himself to say — even on the Internet, even if it isn’t true — that dating exists and he wants to have a relationship.”
She was tired of hearing me complain about the noncommittal rock climbers who lately comprised my romantic life, if it could be called that. At the delicate age at which my single lady status progressed from anthemic to tragic, I moved to California and took up rock climbing, which brought me joy and biceps, if not love. If the climbers I met even acknowledged the existence of relationships, they did so only to inform me that we were not having one.
“It sounds like a disproportionate percentage of those guys are messed-up in the mental category,” said my best friend, “though they have nice bodies.”
My best friend had a nice boyfriend, whom she had met on OkCupid. True to her word, she joined Brooklyn Boulders and started talking about a trip to the Gunks, a climbing area in upstate New York. Meanwhile, I put the Internet date on the list of things I would do “after I got back from my next climbing trip,” which also included switching to a California driver’s license, getting a medical marijuana prescription, making earthquake preparations, investigating LASIK surgery and sewing curtains.
Then, a week before I was supposed to leave for a 10-day trip to the Utah desert, I road-rashed all the skin off the back of my right hand. The wound resembled hamburger meat, and was weeping. The night before our scheduled departure, I finally admitted that my injury was prohibitive to jamming my hand into sandstone cracks, then hanging my body weight from it.
For the first time in a long time, I was not going climbing or possibly going climbing or ostensibly not going climbing but then going climbing anyway. I got out the long-neglected to-do list, made an appointment at the DMV, and returned the message of the least psychotic-seeming, most attractive male to message me in the human online shopping website I had been coerced into joining. Eliminating people who inexplicably used spaces before periods (like this .) got rid of a large swath of the population.
One of his pictures was accurately captioned, "I look like a caveman." Sold, I thought, a connoisseur of the feral, a junkie of the monkeys (a slang term for climbers).
He had the same name as my best friend’s boyfriend. Maybe my best friend and I could have matching boyfriends, to match our matching belay devices. I saved his number in my phone as OKJosé.
* * *
OKJosé and I arranged to meet for coffee. I was late.
While I was applying a fresh bandage to my weeping wound, I accidentally placed a corner of the sticky part on the raw hamburger flesh. Afraid to get the glue in the wound, I ripped the bandage off, howling. The wound began to bleed. I washed, dried, re-disinfected, and re-bandaged it.
The bandage had a layer of sterile honey in it that filled in the hole in my hand, while absorbing the goo that came out of it. The blood began to seep into the honey, making a pattern visible through the translucent bandage. The back of my hand now resembled tie-dye.
I wondered if the wound were a metaphor for my romantic past. I wondered what my climbing crew was climbing in Utah today, if the love of my life were in Moab, waiting at the base of a splitter with a 70-meter rope and a reservoir of patience.
I had once read that a great and famous climber met the father of her child on a climbing trip to Moab. But they were no longer together. No couple in all of climbing I had ever heard of, besides my 60-year-old mentors and a pair of professional Patagonia bloggers I did not know personally, was still together. Maybe those people I met in Joshua Tree who cohabitated in a Toyota minivan and relocated endangered tortoises for a living were still together?
Maybe dating outside this community was a good and valid goal.
“On my way,” I texted OKJosé.
“No worries,” came the reply. “Just enjoying the sunshine.”
This guy had a positive attitude. Good! I had dated too many depressives.
In person, OKJosé was more than OK. He was tall, with long, blond-streaked surfer hair. He was wearing a shirt with the galaxy on it. He looked like a caveman. We hugged. I paid for his iced tea to apologize for being late. Sitting outside at the same table where, in my last attempt at dating, I had once met another non-climber for coffee who brought me a chocolate cake with my initials on it, watched me eat it and then sighed, “I don’t know what to do with you,” OKJosé and I talked.
He didn't make much eye contact, but looked over my left shoulder. He asked nothing about me, and never did, for the duration of the six hours we spent together, besides a cursory, "What do you do for work?"
“I tutor kids,” I said. He didn’t ask how old they were, or whether I worked for myself or someone else, or how I got into that, or whether I liked it. He launched into a long description of his two jobs, his last three sublets, the four genres of music he played.
In the first 20 minutes of our conversation, he mentioned many conspiracy theories. Not the kind I agreed with, but the kind that didn’t hang together. He was of the ilk of electronic music enthusiast who took natural versions of chemical drugs, which he described as “like ecstasy, but more pure.” He referred to the friend who distilled these drugs without irony as a “shaman.” He had once been the proprietor of a medical marijuana concession. Conversation meandered toward the medicinal uses of cannabis.
"Want to go do a bong hit?" he asked.
I considered it. I could go do a bong hit. Then I might like him better, or just care less. But I didn’t want to be altered with a strange man. I had sworn off everything — even weed! — to speed the hand-healing process because not climbing was so depressing.
"I'm living clean this week," I said. "Till this heals." I held up my wound. "Sorry, it's gross."
"No, it's awesome!" he said.
"Ever climbed?" I asked.
"Once," he said. "But it hurt my forearms so much that when I came down I couldn't untie the knot."
"That's normal," I said. Not a climber, I thought.
"My friend got super-into it. He married this chick who's into it and that's all they do now."
I brightened momentarily. That made four climber couples still together!
"You can do a bong hit," I said. "I'll watch."
We retired to his sublet. The whole ordeal was worth the gratitude that I am not living in a sublet, with plastic tubs full of previous roommates’ broken inkjet printers piled in the weird non-living room.
He was my age, but he had been married from age 20 to 30, to a woman eight years older than him. "It was good for me," he said. "I learned a lot about love and friendship."
Had I liked him at all, I would have been sent into paroxysms by this information. Previous marriages were very bad. Divorced guys fit into one of two categories, and I had dated them both: 1) They were totally destroyed from their failed marriages and needed a full-time therapist in the form of a girlfriend for their multi-year recovery process, whom they would cling to like a life raft and drown in their problems until said girlfriend figured out that cause and effect were actually reversed — they were not depressed because their marriage had failed, their marriage had failed because they were depressed, or 2) they were possibly some version of 1) but also viewed their recent divorce as a liberation and were going to make up for lost time by telling every woman they met that she was part of their period of “exploration,” and acting as if this were some kind of compliment.
Be in the moment, I reminded myself, following him into his room. It was neat. Mattress on the floor. Several flashlights and a wrench hung from hooks on the wall.
The noncommittal climber I had been sleeping with most recently drove around in a van full of power tools and showed me pictures in his phone of corroded ventilation equipment he fixed. I found this interesting, even sexy. I tried to force myself to find the flashlights on the wall of this stranger’s sublet sexy. I tried to imagine having sex with him on his floor mattress, but I looked out the window. There were purple flowers all over the gentrified house across the street. We lived in such a beautiful world. In which I would die, alone.
After his bong hits, eye contact came more easily to him. As he blew the smoke in my general direction, I felt my connection to the plant, if not the man.
He told me about his dream of selling a special drink made of juiced marijuana leaves and honey. "Or agave nectar," he added solemnly. “For vegans.”
We went to eat at his favorite raw-foods cafe. But on our way there, he suddenly tried to get me to come back to his house.
"I can just make you dinner," he said, touching my side. "I have salmon."
It was 5:30 p.m. I had known him for two hours.
"I feel like being in the world now," I said.
"Well, I'll buy you dinner," he said, knowingly. I recognized his behavior. It was a certain kind of autism, or maybe this was just -- normal dating? The same culture that had created an online human-shopping website and an algorithm for romantic love had led this man to believe that if he purchased or provided a certain succession of comestibles, he would extract from me the sexual congress in return.
It wasn’t entirely untrue; the men I did fall into bed or love with all performed certain acts of chivalry. They rolled smokes -- sometimes while driving -- led hard climbing routes, knew things about cars, opened beers with a variety of objects, cooked meat, carried ropes, racks, heavy grocery bags, but they also made eye contact, asked questions, listened to things I said, picked up threads of conversation, made me laugh, at least pretended to take me seriously as a writer.
Salmon. It had a lot of omega-3’s. The climbers who eschewed relationships embraced superfoods with equal fervor.
At the raw vegan cafe, all the food had names that were sentences. I AM PURE. I AM DAZZLING. I AM THRIVING. I AM FULFILLED.
The waiter came and read the special. OKJosé wanted that.
"You are celebrated," said the waiter.
"Are the specials in the second person?" I asked. "And the regular menu is in the first person?"
"What?" said the waiter.
"Is the special called 'You are celebrated' instead of 'I am celebrated’ because it’s a special?”
"No, the special is called 'I am celebrated.' But when you order it, I say it back to you, like, 'You are celebrated.'"
I snorted. OKJosé did not think this was funny. He thought it was great that all the food was named affirmation sentences.
I looked at the only painting on the wall, a large, colorful canvas of children playing. "Do you realize that you are provided for?" the painting was captioned in big letters.
“YES,” I thought. “I REALIZE THAT I HAVE BEEN PROVIDED WITH TRUCKLOADS OF ORGANIC PRODUCE AND HOURS OF HOLISTIC MEDICAL CARE IN MY LIFETIME, THOUGH WOULD IT KILL THE UNIVERSE TO PROVIDE ME WITH A BOYFRIEND?”
This was not the gratitude for which the raw vegan cafe was named. I was not pure or fulfilled enough to eat in this restaurant.
The clientele was very diverse. Many interracial couples, a Native American man. But they were all the same. They ate affirmation-sentence food.
I added a salad to our order (I AM ABUNDANT).
The food arrived. It was some of the most delicious superfood I have ever eaten, raw, cooked, vegan or otherwise. I felt things for the food I would never feel for this man.
We were seated at one end of a large communal table. A girl wearing short overalls over a tight white tank top came and sat down with us. She looked a lot like me, but a higher-contrast version, with more olive skin and darker brown, almost black hair. OKJosé began a lengthy and animated conversation with her about food allergies -- avoiding eggs, avoiding grains, avoiding maple syrup.
You are both morons, I thought, but you have good chemistry. I should leave. This could really be something.
But I was mowing down on the delicious food. Climbing has made me eat in a wolfish way. What were my climbing buddies eating right now, in the desert? Sometimes the boys in my climbing crew fought about how the meat should be cooked. I missed the boys fighting about how the meat should be cooked, then working it out in a way we could never work out our romantic-sexual interactions.
My date and the alternate version of me in shortalls chatted. I tried not to eat all of "I AM CELEBRATED" before OKJosé had seconds.
Shortalls had dropped out of college to travel. OKJosé did, too! Well, not to travel. But to be in bands, that traveled, sometimes. Why couldn’t I like him? I liked people who dropped out, traveled, were in bands.
Shortalls had created an app to help people “manage their food and money while they travel."
"How does it work?" I asked.
"I can't say," she said smugly. "I'm patenting it right now."
I tried to offer this girl the open heart all aspiring app designers needed, and not judge her for wearing the shortalls. As he picked up the check, OKJosé told Shortalls where to find him when he worked at the farmer's market.
The noncommittal climber with whom I had most recently been entangled had tried to pick up an ice-cream store employee, a Berkeley sophomore, a waitress at the Joshua Tree Saloon and a waitress at the Iron Door Saloon, right before my very eyes. This did not prevent me from giving him what OKJosé now thought he rightfully deserved. The previous noncommittal climber had flirted with every waitress, checkout girl, national, state and regional park employee, other climber of both genders, and sometimes even small animals we encountered during the multi-year noncommittal non-relationship I had been trying to end for multiple years. This also had not prevented me from sometimes giving him what OKJosé would never receive.
I had equal awareness that in our small, incestuous and clumsily polyamorous community, they, too, had witnessed me flirting with others, being with others, and on some nights, disappearing into the vans of others. But if the community was governed by any rule, it was that there were No Rules. It was not fair to disqualify this man on the grounds of flirting with others. That was part of the rules of No Rules. The reason I was on this date was to acknowledge the existence of rules, and males who might abide by them, who had at least checked boxes saying they had read Terms of Agreement in order to shop online for love.
But the difference between this man and those men was that though the lawless ones were fatally flawed and we played dangerous games, I always felt that I was in a conspiracy with them. The tribalism of our community made the conspiracy more than theory.
After dinner, I suggested the Berkeley Marina for sunset. It was a warm night, not windy. We stood in a field, watching a red-winged blackbird. I usually came here alone and felt lonely. In theory, it was nice to share the experience with another human. But I felt more lonely than when I was alone.
OKJosé stood near, eyes hooded. The fact that I had used a drop-down menu on the Internet to say that I wanted to have a relationship made him think he could kiss me now. But I didn’t want to have a relationship. I wanted to like someone. I wanted to feel something.
I had felt something for the most recent fatally flawed noncommittal climber. When he wasn't trying to get me to have a threesome at an inappropriately early point in our non-relationship, or exhibiting wild and befuddling mood swings, we laughed a lot and had fun in bed. And, best and worst of all, we never stopped talking. This was no small thing. We took many long car rides with not a moment's awkward silence. We would put on NPR or a podcast, and just start talking over it. No small thing.
Now, I felt nothing. Was that a dish on the menu of a raw vegan restaurant somewhere? I FEEL NOTHING.
"I like your scent," he said.
"Thanks," I said, slightly creeped out. Then I remembered I had said smell was important to me in my mildly deranged and radically honest deal-fulfilling OkCupid profile. The only other thing it said was, “I hate authority in all its forms.”
I couldn’t smell him at all. I smelled the bay. I began to imagine that I could date the bay, or the Bay Bridge, or the fog on the Golden Gate.
We walked to a more populated area. The kissing vibe dissipated. He told me about some strain of magic mushroom that could survive a trip on an asteroid.
I liked magic mushrooms. I liked asteroids. Why did that remark annoy me? It just did. He just wasn't going anywhere with his idea. He was against the right things and for the right things, but it didn't matter. Several times in the course of our date, he said, "I think an awakening is coming."
If I cannot experience sustainable love with another human, I will make it my lifelong personal mission to ensure that people who say “an awakening is coming” never have sex again. Why would an awakening be coming now? Human civilization is obviously on a downward spiral headed toward the total destruction of itself and the entire planet. If I were a Playboy bunny, my biggest turnoff would be the phrase, “An awakening is coming.”
It was now 9 o’clock. We were seven minutes from the climbing gym, which was open until 10.
"Want to go boulder for an hour?” I asked hopefully.
But OKJosé wanted to go pick up some weed from some sound guy at some club downtown. I declined to participate and delivered him home. We kissed goodnight. It was OK. It wasn't bad. He had big, soft lips. But I felt nothing.
"Call me any time," he said.
"OK, José," I said. If my hand hurt less or my loneliness got worse, could I let him cook me salmon and then do bong hits on the mattress?
I drove home, awash in relief. I could quit OkCupid now that I had kept up my end of the bargain with my best friend. I was a woman of my word, even if I was also a fallen woman, an unethical slut, and possibly fundamentally incapable of a healthy relationship. Or, maybe -- I just hadn’t met the right person?
Fifty minutes later, at home, I received the following text:
"Thx for tonight ... I just got home. Let me know if you'd like to have some more fun ;)"
The winky face. I had sent and responded to many a winky face. We all know what a winky face means when texted after dark. Bold, I thought.
I respected the bold move, when I respected the man. The firm grab. The headlong dive into the back of my bedded-out Subaru. The wiggled eyebrow, the beckoning bottleneck, the simple invitation to go take in a view on the way to which a single misstep might pose some mild to moderate to severe death risk.
"I'm in for the night,” I replied. “Maybe some other time."
I ripped the bandage off my wound to give it some air. The nerves were all exposed; it stung and sung with a quality of sensation that made me queasy. Tomorrow, at the gym, I’d put what was left of me in the plastic crack, and see if I could tolerate the pain.