Having excused myself from getting involved in all things humanly romantic for the last few years, I have woken up recently missing even its worst aspects. Without the benefit of a ready-made pool of possibilities, however (we aren’t in graduate school anymore, I tell myself, and those art-colony romances seem to fall to pieces once you hit the West Side Highway), I now know the classic New York complaint is true: In a city of eight million it actually is hard to meet people.
So I have started dating, or trying to date, or trying to open my mind to the idea of dating. Because of my self-imposed solitude these last few years, a recent dating-related incident made it clear to me that I have lost all of my seductive techniques. Or that I have finally lost my mind. Either/or. In the confusion of first encounters, I’ve become a sort of compulsive blurter of my psyche’s darkest realms. What my friends find amusing-my interest in bizarre birth defects and forensic crime shows-may be coming off as a behavioral problem to the men I meet.
For example, after meeting a man at a friend’s art opening, I crafted an e-mail that I didn’t send, for reasons that will become crystal clear in a moment. After we were introduced at the event, I was delighted to find out that this man was a doctor-a radiologist, to be specific-and so might possibly be knowledgeable about the weird medical things that interest me: vestigial tails, for example, or the full rainbow of craniofacial disorders. I quickly raised what I thought were promising conversational topics: a TV show I watched last year called 101 Things Found in the Human Body; a recent case of child abuse where the children were reduced to eating the windowsills; and the case of man who was considered “lucky” after falling from a roof holding a nail gun which shot six long nails into his head.
“Wow!” I said, “Imagine that C.A.T. scan!”
A sardonic half-smile indicated that the doctor was willing to play this game. This man knew the scientific names for my favorite medical oddities. Brainless babies? Anencephaly. The eating of non-nutritive matter? Pica.
During our conversation, the doctor kept looking over my head as I piled on the questions: “Are tumors of hair and teeth actually absorbed fetal twins?” and “Do you know anything about the connection between dwarfism and polydactylism?” At a certain point, I registered that he wasn’t meeting my eye and thought: “How sweet! He doesn’t want to appear interested. Men are such babies!” I chattered on: “What about the two-headed baby, where the second head’s lips mimicked nursing and its eyes blinked? Really, what was Nature thinking?”
Finally he said, “Look, sorry, I’m 20 minutes late for dinner at my cousin’s. Nice to meet you.” He handed me his card-maybe in case I felt I ever needed a full body scan. After he edged away, I looked behind me and saw there was a clock on the back wall. He hadn’t been blinded by my conversational effervescence; he had been waiting for a chance to break away.
When I mentioned this encounter and the tragic placement of the clock to my friend and confidant, Mark, he encouraged me to ask the doctor out for a drink anyway.
“Just ask him. Send an e-mail. What is there to lose?” He added, “I mean, at this point.”
Here is the e-mail I did not send. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the participants-except, of course, for my own:
It was nice to meet you a few weeks back at Mary’s opening. I very much enjoyed our discussion of people who ingest pounds of nickels and Barbie doll heads and those tumors made of hair and teeth. I’d like to continue the conversation if you have the inclination. I actually looked at a C.A.T. scan of my father’s brain last Saturday. He had a massive intracranial stroke (he did not survive, sadly, though in the end this is a merciful thing) and the E.R. doctor wanted to show it to me. You could explain to me how those images work. It was very beautiful-very run-of-the-mill as far as scans go, I am sure, but it was moving to see inside my father’s brain, something I have been trying to do without the benefit of science for about 37 years.
“Let me know if you’d like to meet.”
Interesting ploy, no? I sent the e-mail to Mark for vetting, and he called almost immediately (I had barely hit “send” before the phone rang) to say that under no circumstances was I to send that e-mail-not only did I sound disturbed, but it was also unclear if I was asking this man out for a date, consulting him for medical advice or requesting an interview.
“Darling,” he said, “I had no idea you were so inept. How did this happen? You are an intelligent woman. Get a grip. Next time, don’t launch into the full arsenal of morbid interests, O.K.?”
“But they aren’t morbid interests,” I said. “They are simply interesting anomalous situations that can occur at any time to anyone. Fetal-twin tumors are not a joke.”
“Trust me. Now delete that thing and try again.”
Mark was right. Forget Nature-what had I been thinking? What had compelled me to be so vocal about interests so obviously disturbing? In the face of a bona fide male prospect, why had I trotted out the image of that baby with the two heads? Why use my father’s death to segue into my interest in the science behind medical imaging? Was I subconsciously trying to repel this man?
And what was really behind those interests, anyway?
After some thought, I deduced the following.
One: By consuming a steady diet of freakish news stories, I was clearly trying to inoculate myself against the many horrors the world has to offer. At an early age, I witnessed some bad juju, and I’ve been a scholar of the macabre ever since. With my predilections I am saying, “Dark things happen every day. Randomly. Without meaning.”
Two: By talking about such things with a stranger, I was throwing up a wall. That was obvious. But bringing up ugly realities is also a bit of a cheeky challenge, a kind of Darwinian test: Can you deal with this much darkness? Either way, not inviting.
Three: While it may look like hiding, I am simultaneously doing the opposite. Talking about brainless babies is, in effect, a kind of radical self-exposure. I am flashing the red cape at the bull and daring him to really see me and my radical, ontological fears.
This all seems nearly healthy, right? No matter-No. 3 gives me faint hope.
So last night I crafted another e-mail. It’s straightforward and light and sane; it merely mentions a drink and a meeting place. No intracranial-stroke digressions. No updates on the latest child abduction. If he says yes, we can start anew and talk about art openings, movies and N.Y.C. real estate, like other single people. I figure if things work out with the doctor, there’ll be plenty of time to discuss the dark stuff later.