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Personal Essays

The Real Me

The internet is an unrelenting enabler of our flaws and an unforgiving archive of them—so should you google your new love interest, or hold off? And what if they google you first?

Hans Op de Beeck, Still Life, 2010. Courtesy the artist.

Certain questions answer themselves. Like when a message appears in your email inbox from a romantic interest who you’ve barely met, whose full name you don’t yet know, and to whom, come to think of it, you’ve never given your email address—a message with a subject line reading, “Is this stalking?”

The note was from a woman I’d met online, Maren, she of the blue-green eyes and curly chestnut hair and endearingly droll messages sent through the dating site. We’d been on our third date the previous night. It had gone well, I thought, but for one slip-up on my part: I had, for the first time, mentioned my last name in passing. The instant I said it, my stomach and sentences tangled in knots. I knew what was coming.

“Hey Doug,” her email continued. “Yep—I know your last name now. So, I googled you.”

Cue the ominous music, the soft groan of dread, as the glow of my screen cast horror-movie flickers around the lonely expanses of my otherwise dark apartment.

 

You may wonder how it was possible that we didn’t already know each other’s last names. To which I say: Such is the state of dating in the modern, digital realm. And feel lucky, friend, if you have not had to endure it.

Our correspondence so far had been through the dating web site on which we’d met; we knew each other only by our first names and esoteric online handles.

Dating changes our standards of normalcy. It ups the stakes for every minor flaw—and the internet is both an unrelenting enabler and unforgiving archive of flaws.

My concern wasn’t because I had any tabloid-worthy secrets, mind you. But dating changes our standards of normalcy. It ups the stakes for every minor flaw—and the internet is both an unrelenting enabler and unforgiving archive of flaws. As a single 30-year-old in the era of online courtship, I’d been in similar situations before and, in fact, had often been unable to resist my own temptation to type names into the search box. Inevitably, I felt weird and creepy if I didn’t find anything noteworthy, weirder and creepier if I did. Things rarely ended well.

Also, I am very, very good at worrying.

Sitting at my computer that night, looking at Maren’s email, I considered the possibilities:

Unwelcome Search Result No. 1: My Evil Twins. I, like many people, have my share of Google doppelgängers, some of whom have decidedly odd hobbies or are otherwise, shall we say, the date-scaring types. Decades older. Civil War-obsessed. Freemasons.

Unwelcome Search Result No. 2: The Old Me. The me I wished to forget. The me that still lingered in the internet’s scrapbook of Doug’s Greatest Hits of Awkwardness. School photos from the days of Zubaz and a white-boy ‘fro. Sporting achievements that betrayed my utter lack of athleticism, like my glacier-paced 10K time and my even less impressive showing as a “mathlete.” Or, God help me, poetry.

Worst Search Result of Them All: The Real Me. As a struggling travel writer, I had a website full of struggling-travel-writer things: a where-I’ve-been list of decidedly non-exotic places; a blog I updated with the same sporadic, haphazard approach I applied to getting my car’s oil changed; a smattering of articles I’d written for unrecognizably obscure publications. An accurate representation of me, yes—but that was the problem.

 

My eyes lingered on each word of Maren’s email, tracing the Arial contours, working up the nerve to leap the white chasm to the unknown perils of the next island of letters.

She had indeed found the Real Me. Read my bio, my stories. Miracle of miracles, she wanted to continue the conversation—and to make things even, she offered a link to her own blog: “Since I’m stalking you and read your website, I thought I ought to reciprocate.” The entries dated to her college study-abroad year in Sweden and the three years she spent teaching English in Japan.

Her brief email ended, “Please ignore the parts where I may seem like an idiot.”

It was a touching offering, like a stranger unexpectedly sharing a meal or a hard-won prize: I give you my awkwardness. I like you for yours; I hope you will like me for mine.

I hadn’t even realized I was holding my breath until it escaped in a full-throated rush that was at once relieved sigh and belly laugh.

As I clicked through Maren’s blog, the “idiotic” parts were endearing in their familiarity, funny-painful expressions of someone grappling with being an outsider in foreign lands—most of all, the dizzying world of adulthood. Her posts, like mine, were essentially diary entries sent into the ether. Brutal honesty is easy when you don’t think anyone’s paying attention.

Over the next two days, we swapped links to streamline the mutual stalking, offering access to our proudest and most mortifying moments, with commentary tracks.

Here’s the time I nearly caused a riot on a German train, thanks to ineptitude regarding basic ticketing procedures, I told her—but a few days later, I was the one helping out other Eurail rookies. Here’s my dyspeptic post about hating Venice—but please don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to beauty and romance as a general rule.

When her reply hit my inbox, my apartment reverberated again with that sigh-laugh sound, with a grace note of schoolboy-crush swooning. She wrote back. And she’s upped the mortification ante.

Here was her brooding, soul-searching post from a period when she was homesick in Japan. And here, at the other extreme, were some embarrassing photos from abroad: “Please don’t laugh too hard at all the doofy poses. We had a lot of time and nobody else was really around.”

I wondered what transgressions awaited. I clicked and found Maren jumping for joy in front of the largest pumpkin I had ever seen, a self-aware grin spread across her face.

The Maren of our first few dates was charmingly sarcastic yet also reserved, in a way that I knew to be a product of the newness of our budding relationship—but the “doofy” photos offered a different view, a more vivacious woman, forever laughing, her brown hair framing gleaming eyes, a study in carefree verve.

Where the woman of the online profile and a few face-to-face meetings had been a captivating line drawing, the photos and blog posts added the shading and texture and depth—the fuller, richer image, the details that really matter.

 

The next weekend, we had our fourth date, walking around the downtown Minneapolis riverfront for more than two hours. It was a lazy Sunday morning in August, the paths overlooking the Mississippi River for once devoid of packs of runners and Segway tour groups, nothing to distract us from each other.

“Have you been enjoying the stalking?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she grinned. “And you?”

“Absolutely. Did you find the post about eating sushi in Berlin?”

“Not yet.”

“I’ll send a link. Don’t judge.”

“I look forward to it.”

For the first time, our real-time, in-person interaction eased into the informality and openness of our blog posts and emails, the nervous energy of getting-to-know-you giving way to more relaxed banter, genuine conversation rather than interrogation.

As we poked around the crumbling remains of an old flour mill by the river, Maren mentioned a blog post I had written about visiting ancient Roman ruins and fearing that a falling rock would bash in my head.

“These look stable,” she said with a gently mocking smirk. “But I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

Our conversation pivoted to her own irrational fears of freak accidents: elevator collapse, Ebola, falling down a flight of stairs with her head bouncing on every step, all the way to the bottom. And yet, somehow, life goes on. Our shared mantra. Even when the pulse quickens, we remind ourselves not to defer to anxieties. Onward.

The specific moment that had built our trust and communication—the key to the mutual attraction we felt but had not yet confessed outright—was basically an act of distrust and paranoia, a secretive background check.

With a sheepish grin that was half-joking, half-serious, Maren added, “But when I go down stairs, I still always hold the railing, just in case.”

We continued walking, our pace leisurely, destination unknown, the river’s murmuring current and the cicadas’ meditative hum providing an enveloping, anodyne soundtrack. We traded more stories and, with paired askew smiles, agreed that the world is a strange, terrifying place—but also wonderful.

And we mused about the irony of it all: The specific moment that had built our trust and communication—the key to the mutual attraction we felt but had not yet confessed outright—was basically an act of distrust and paranoia, a secretive background check. It was all the more miraculous given our innate anxieties; all the more fitting that together we should discover, finally, what it was to be at ease.

“I’m really glad you stalked me,” I said. “And let me stalk you back.”

We stopped to sit on a low wall at the top of a hill, the riverfront laid out below us, an ideally romantic overlook. We sat millimeters apart, the space imperceptible to passersby but a gaping void to us.

“So…”

“So…”

 

We were a couple.

But there was one more secret I hadn’t shared, something buried deep in the digital past, something with much higher stakes than silly photos and amusingly brooding missives.

So late that night, I sent Maren one last link. “For the full stalking (on your part) and the full disclosure (on mine),” I wrote, “there’s also another semi-hidden, long-neglected, and mostly forgotten blog.” It detailed my years-long bout with a debilitating chronic illness, which was in remission but could come back at any time. I’d stumblingly mentioned it in passing earlier, but knew I couldn’t verbalize it as well as I had expressed it in writing back when the pain, the pills, and the hospital gowns were a potent reality rather than an unpleasant memory.

“Know about it but don’t worry about it,” I typed, my fingers shaky. “You now officially know everything.”

There it was: all the stakes. Absolute transparency. The most painful chapter of my life, laid out in full for inspection and judgment.

For the longest 36 minutes of my life, I buried my head in my hands and stared at my laptop through clammy fingers, waiting for that oracular parenthetical number at the top of my screen: Inbox (1).

Finally, it came. I moved my cursor, held my breath, and clicked.

She wrote: “I don’t worry about it, because you clearly don’t. You’ve got your history, I’ve got mine.”

My entire body relaxed; I sank into my chair with one last, enormous sighing laugh. My apartment felt anything but lonely, the flickering of my screen no longer a jittery menace but a proud beacon of hope.

Maren closed: “I like you, Doug, and I’m happy to be where we are. See you tomorrow.”

 

Exactly seven months after we started dating, we took an evening walk, hand in hand, along a moonlit path around Minneapolis’s Lake Harriet. My grandmother’s Art Deco wedding ring was in a box in my jacket pocket. We stopped at a bench and I got down on one knee and pulled out the ring; my hands trembled but I was far more confident than I ever had been at the keyboard.

Maren said yes. We’re getting married this summer.

Recently, a friend of ours teasingly scolded us for not having much on our Williams-Sonoma registry.

It was a work in progress, we said. That’s why we hadn’t told anyone about it—hang on, how had she found us?

Our friend grinned slyly. “Oh, I’ve been stalking you on the internet.”