October 20, 2003

Plastic

I had a date last night with a woman wrapped in plastic. Or at least I think it was plastic. It looked like super-thick cellophane. What is that stuff they wrap little boxes in? This was like that, only thicker and less shiny. When she turned her head, her cheek appeared to have an extra, translucent layer of skin.

Shrink wrap. This looked like extra-thick shrink wrap. It covered everything, including her clothes, and seemed to be just a single piece all the way around. It was as though she’d been put through a shrink wrap machine. Only how would they have gotten the material all the way around her arms and legs and between her fingers? Instead she must have been dipped into something, the way strawberries are dipped into chocolate.

We met through an online personals site, nerve.com. Although she didn’t mention anything about plastic in her profile or in any of the emails we exchanged, it turns out that she’s covered in plastic in all three profile photos. I know because I went back and looked. Originally I assumed it was some kind of arty Photoshop effect, particularly since she, like half the women on Nerve, is a graphic designer.

Those photos were important to me. A woman doesn’t need to be gorgeous (in fact I find that I’m biased against the ones who are), but I must have the sense that I would find her attractive in person – or rather that I wouldn’t find her unattractive. It’s really more the latter: I use the photos to weed out the no’s.

The woman last night (I’ll call her Megan) looked plenty attractive in her photos. And she got extra points for coloring one in with what looked like day-glo paint. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Nerve is a cut above other such sites, but you’re still faced with a slew of insipid, quasi-flirtatious questions like, “What is your favorite on-screen sex scene?” and “What celebrity do you resemble?” and “What song or album puts you in the mood?” Any attempt at creativity jumps out.

Megan also impressed me with she how dealt with Nerve’s one fill-in-the-blanks question: “Blank is sexy; blank is sexier.” I have a file where I save the best answers to this, and hers is at the top: Jesus is sexy; Oh Jesus is sexier.

But it wasn’t the day-glo paint or the Jesus answer that sold me; it was her answer to the final question, the worst of the bunch: “What are you looking for?” Women usually respond with a list of desirable characteristics and traits, a list more or less like every other woman’s list. But Megan skipped all that and wrote: “Someone who can levitate. Or at least have fun trying. Okay: ready, set, go!”

Reading this I immediately clicked the Send Message link and composed a message to her. Here’s what I wrote:

I’m bumming. There was this genie a while back who gave me three wishes (long story) and I thought of asking for the power to levitate but instead choose x-ray vision. What was I thinking? It’s as though I channeled my six-year-old self, the one who was obsessed with seeing what people look like naked. A totally wasted wish.

In my defense the genie stood there with a stop watch and said I had to decide in thirty seconds or the offer would be withdrawn. They don’t mention this in any of the genie stories and frankly I think it’s deliberate. They figure the unexpected pressure will get people to screw up and ask for ridiculous things like x-ray vision.

Anyway it would have been cool to levitate for you and have you be all, “Whoa, what else can you do?” But alas. Would you settle for me knowing what’s in your refrigerator without having to open the door?

I probably didn’t need to quote the entire message, but it’s charming, no? I was inspired. More to the point, Megan liked it. We exchanged three or four emails before talking on the phone. It was hard to hear what she was saying (due to the plastic of course, which goes over her mouth and makes it sound like she’s talking through plastic), but I just figured it was a bad connection.

When she approached me outside the cafe and asked me to tell her what was inside her bag, I was too flustered by the question to really notice what she looked like.

“A picture of Jesus,” I said finally, and we laughed.

Inside we sat at a table in the corner, and immediately I saw that her nose was sort of scrunched in and that her hair was too flat. The thing is, you want to be totally cool in that moment, you want to act like everything is fine and normal and that you don’t notice that the other person has some terrible problem. That’s what I thought this was: a problem. Then I saw the extra layer on her cheek and hands, and pretty soon I realized that she was simply a normal-looking woman wrapped in plastic.

Looking back I regret not saying anything. I guess I was in a kind of shock. When I meet a woman online, I try not to allow myself to fantasize, based on a little day-glo paint, who she might be. Still it’s hard to stop myself for doing exactly this. Megan seemed really special in her profile – funny, smart, creative – and I couldn’t help imagining that we would hit it off and maybe even fall in love. I knew this was ridiculous, I knew I didn’t know her in the least, but that’s what I found myself thinking.

It’s interesting how you deal. When I realized she was wrapped in plastic, my first thought was that maybe this was some sort of conceptual performance piece, that Megan was commenting on the way we “package” ourselves. Nerve is very much about that, with cutesy usernames and clever profile headlines (Megan’s headline was Temptress in a Teapot; mine is More than this.) Were this true, were it really a performance piece, I would have fallen at her feet. But of course it wasn’t. Just to be sure, though, I asked if she liked conceptual art, and she made a face, a real face, and I knew I was wrong.

The rest was excruciating. Einstein said that two hours spent with a beautiful woman is less time than two minutes spent on a burning stove, but Einstein never mentioned anything about plastic.

Megan had nothing to eat or drink, I assume because she couldn’t get anything into her mouth. I had green tea and a scone. Without thinking, I offered her a bite. She gave me the same look as when I asked about conceptual art.

We talked the way you talk when you have nothing to say. I asked her questions and she asked me questions and then we both asked each other follow-up questions. After a time we would get to the end of a particular subject and then one of us would think of another subject and we would ask each other questions about that. I learned, for example, that her younger brother has a business making chakra tuning forks.

The worst part was the parting. I never know how to handle that. I want to be nice but I’m loathe to give the wrong idea. How do you tell a woman that you like her but that you wouldn’t want to see her again because she’s wrapped in plastic?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Because you never actually say any such thing. Instead you thank her for a nice time and leave it that. By saying nothing about the future, the message is clear.

The absolute worst, and this is what happened yesterday, is when she fills the empty space with an offer to get together again. At this point your only options are to state outright that you’re not interested or give a weak yes and tell her you’ll call her. The former requires a kind of courage I don’t possess. I told Megan that a film sounded fun but that I needed to check my schedule.

My plan, my real plan, is to email her and tell her the truth – without mentioning the plastic. She’s bound to know though. How many men have rejected her, for how many supposed reasons, when each time she knew the real reason?

When I got home I went online and looked at her profile again. Partly this was to check the photos, but mainly I just wanted to remember the person I had imagined her to be. Everything was the same, the same words and photos, but they didn’t have the same effect. Even the levitation bit didn’t seem so great anymore, although I still laughed at her answer to the sexy/sexier question. That just cracks me up. Jesus, Oh Jesus. I can’t help loving that.