Trish hadn't wanted to fill out the online dating profile. But her friend Jackie had insisted, saying that she couldn't spend every Saturday night holed up in her apartment eating microwave pizza and watching reruns with her cat. So, Trish had dutifully and painstakingly answered the questions set against Soulmate Search's bright aqua screen. Trish supposed that the Web designers meant for it to be calming, but it only made Trish more irritable as she struggled to answer questions about her favorite foods and hobbies. Was it pathetic to admit that she enjoyed bacon and a night of knitting? Maybe. She started to type "salad" and "aerobics" instead and then stopped. No, if she was going to do this crazy-ass thing, then she might as well do it right. Bacon and knitting it was. She'd have to upload a photo, too (just the thought of that made her cringe), so at least her prospective suitors would know that she was thinner and younger than her interests suggested. Not that she was exactly Gisele. But her thin build and shoulder-length blond hair were a cut above average, even if her penchant for cat sweatshirts set her appearance back a few pegs. Speaking of cats, Trish's profile wouldn't be complete without more than a few words about her beloved tabby, Tabitha. Trish put on the breaks just as she was getting to the part about her and Tabitha's marathon sessions of hide-and-seek. It was important, after all, to maintain an air of mystery. With a few clicks, the questionnaire was finished. Trish logged off her computer in relief, then channel surfed until she hit pay dirt with Legally Blonde.
Over the next few weeks, Trish logged into her Soulmate Search account with a mix of excitement and trepidation. At first, she didn't receive any responses. Then a few questionable ones trickled in, the most disturbing of which was from a magician looking for a lovely assistant to saw in half. Trish hastily deleted that one, then steered clear of the computer for the next few days as if merely touching it threw her in harm's way. When she finally got up the gumption to try again she was surprised to find a message from an attractive and normal-sounding insurance salesman named Bob. He was quietly handsome - more Tom Hanks than Tom Cruise - and he enjoyed reading, camping, and live music. She could do without the camping, but then no one was perfect. Anyway, he had a cat, a calico named Cumin - because - and Trish could hardly read this without laughing - he firmly believed that variety was the spice of life. Hokey stuff, to be sure. And yet, there was something down-to-earth and warm in such honesty, in Bob's willingness to - as the kids said -let his freak flag fly. Trish decided to message him. As she typed, Tabitha meowed from her perch on the couch. Trish couldn't help but take it as a sign of approval.
During the next few weeks, Trish and Bob emailed regularly. Bob seemed sensitive and insightful and said all the right things when she emailed him pictures of Tabitha, even going so far as to say that she would have been the perfect mate for Cumin had he not been neutered. He commiserated when she complained about her job working reception at a car dealership. For some reason her boss thought it was her job to make a donut run when the bakery box was whittled down to a few stale specimens. Privately, she thought they'd last longer if he didn't eat so many, but that wasn't the kind of thing she felt comfortable telling anyone except Jackie, so it was nice to have a fresh pair of ears. Trish found herself staring at Bob's picture more often than was probably healthy, mesmerized by his kind dark eyes and shy smile and the way his blue checked shirt complemented his tan. There was a red canoe in the background, and Trish imagined she and Bob taking romantic trips down a sun-dappled river arbored by flowering trees. Never mind that she hated the outdoors and couldn't swim. She was sure that even the most rustic of activities would be made magical by Bob's presence.
A month passed before Bob suggested a face-to-face date. Trish was thrilled; in her opinion, four weeks of unvoiced chitchat was four weeks too many. She wanted to know what Bob sounded like, but he always demurred when she suggested moving their conversations to the phone. Deep down she knew that there was something weird about his reluctance. But then, what did she know about online dating protocol? Maybe this was the way things were done. Anyway, she was so head-over-heels ecstatic to be enmeshed in her own romance that not even a Mack truck of warning signs could have deterred her.
Bob wanted to meet at a restaurant called Del's Diner, which Trish had never heard of but should have. It was a few blocks from the car dealership where she worked, and he wanted to meet her there the following Tuesday at seven. Trish's heart sank slightly at this; she had been hoping for a Saturday date somewhere special. But maybe this was better, more unpretentious, more cozy, more Bob. At least that was how she pitched it to Jackie when she told her on the phone that night. But Jackie was having none of it, uncharitably calling Bob a cheapskate. Nevertheless, she cautioned Trish not to wear any of her cat sweatshirts, insisting that it was far better to go with something fitted and black. Trish gave in but secretly plotted to clip a cat barrette in her hair.
Trish thought that Tuesday night would never come. She daydreamed the hours away at work, inadvertently snubbing customers and flaking out on not one but three donut runs, much to her boss's annoyance. She hadn't told anyone but Jackie about her date, not even her mother. That way she could guard her secret like a precious jewel without anyone telling her that it was flashy or fantastic, or worse of all, fake.
Ten minutes before seven on the appointed Tuesday, Trish peered into her compact. She'd stayed at work past her usual five o' clock quitting time for the convenience factor, a trial that would pay off when she could leave two hours early come Friday. She pried mascara clumps from her eyelashes, blotted her nose and chin with pressed powder, and applied a fresh coat of her signature Revlon Silver City pink lipstick. Then she adjusted her cat barrette, flecked an invisible speck of lint from her black sweater, and set out on her way. Her heart was humming. As she walked down the sidewalk, she wondered if this was how the beginnings of a heart attack felt. The air was too hot for the sweater, causing rivulets of sweat to roll down her back. But before she could dwell on this, Del's Diner emerged from the street, its dingy chrome exterior slicing the sky. Trish took a deep breath and went in.
It was tiny inside and only half full. Trish stood at the door, surreptitiously scanning the tables for a man who matched Bob's description. At first glance there were none. But when she looked again she noticed a man at the back corner table. He had Bob's eyes but was blond instead of dark. Also, he had a sheaf of papers in front of him and was crossing things out with a pen. Uncertainly, she made her way toward him.
"Excuse me, but are you Bob? From Soulmate Search?"
The man put down his pen and looked at her appraisingly. "Yes. You must be Trish."
His voice was flat. Not anything so awful as high-pitched or girly or even menacing, but nonetheless empty, as if it knew nothing of the confidences they'd traded over the past month. Unable to do anything else, Trish nodded and slid into the booth opposite him.
"I'm so glad you could make it," he said, giving his papers one last glance before pushing them ever so slightly to the side. "I have someone else coming at 7:30, but we should be done by then."
"Someone else?" Trish's stomach churned. She must have misheard him.
"Yes. I like to do all my interviews on Tuesdays. That way I have plenty of time to plan my weekend."
"Your weekend?" The walls were closing in on her, their dreadful plaid wallpaper hurting her head. Was it her imagination, or was Bob beginning to look annoyed?
"Certainly. I like to meet the women I've been messaging face to face. You know, get a feel for them, see if we click. Then I pick the most compatible one and plan a date for the following Saturday. Years of online dating have taught me that this is the most efficient way."
The women he'd been messaging? Years of online dating? The words mocked Trish, joining forces with the wallpaper. Yet curiosity kept her seated.
"Right," she said, as if Bob's little ritual made all the sense in the world. "Say, why is your hair blond? You were brunette in your profile picture."
Bob patted his pale pate. "Studies have shown that women feel safer with dark-haired men. So I post a picture of myself with dyed hair. Plus, I like to gauge women's reactions when they see that I'm blond. Helps me to judge their adaptability to new situations." He eyed her critically for a moment, then checked something off on one of his papers.
Trish withered, sure that he'd just issued her some kind of demerit. Then, unable to go on with the charade any longer, she said, "I feel like I'm applying for a job."
Bob didn't look surprised. But then, he'd probably heard it before. "An online dating profile isn't so different from a help wanted sign," he pointed out.
"Maybe so," Trish allowed, getting up from her seat, "but I think you're the one who needs help." Her voice sounded so sure, so steely, so woman-scorned perfect. He would have never guessed that she was trembling inside, the tears so painfully close to the surface that they threatened to choke her.
He was wordless as she left Del's Diner. Humiliation clung to Trish like a second sweater. Yet as stung as she was, there was a part of her that had always known that Bob wasn't real. Confirming that suspicion was painful. But it also gave her a strange sense of closure. Trish put one foot in front of the other, secure in the knowledge that she would soon be back with Tabitha and her reruns, a frozen brick of pizza thawing in the microwave.