The Emotional Spark: What’s That Thing We All Long For?

Through the glass door at the W Hotel Bar in Union Square, I saw him: the screenwriter from L.A. My Internet Cyrano, the person I’d been talking to every night for the last month. My first instinct was to turn and sprint. Not just because he was holding a single long-stemmed rose that was clearly for me. (Though, O.K., that didn’t help.) And not because of how he looked—I’d known what to expect from his pictures.

No, I wanted to bolt because my pseudo-boyfriend had suddenly become incarnate, and I preferred him in disembodied form: as a voice 3,000 miles away.

He’d first contacted me through a dating site, of course. When he wrote to say my smile was killer, I was flattered enough to check out his profile. Except, uh-oh: His face was pretty much hidden in his picture—a sure sign, I figured, that he was ugly, disfigured or, who knows, toothless. I was about to click away when I noticed he was in the film biz. Hmm, inter-resting. So I cavalierly broke online dating rules No. 1 and 2—Thou shalt not engage with long-distance suitors, and Thou shalt not e-mail anyone who doesn’t post a decent pic—and told Rose he could phone me, why not.

He was funny, inquisitive and sweet … so when Rose kept ringing, I broke rule No. 3—Thou shalt not engage in more than one meaningful call before meeting face to face, lest thou get invested in someone thou hast no chemistry with. And before I knew it, we’d fallen into a strange intimacy: He was calling me nightly to ask how my day had been and to talk writerly shop.

Then, suddenly, Rose was planning a trip east. Ostensibly, that was because he needed a break from La-La-Land and all the phonies there—but, as he himself said, “If we don’t at least pretend that’s the reason, we’ll put too much pressure on ourselves.”

“While we’re at it, can we say we’ll meet as friends instead of potential make-out partners?” I asked. “Even less pressure. You know.”

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re just transcontinental pen pals finally getting together for a friendly meal.”

A couple weeks later, the fateful evening arrived. While putting on lipstick in the mirror, it occurred to me that I wasn’t feeling any butterflies—not even caterpillars—and I was forced to admit I’d never be attracted to Rose: Though I’d become attached to him because he was the only person who called daily to check on me, I’d never felt the all-important emotional spark. I’d never said to myself: This might be the person who understands me like no one else ever has, and isn’t scared or baffled or disgusted by who I really am. Rose and I had never discussed stuff that made my heart and head (and maybe one other body part) surge with excitement. With the guys I’ve fallen for in the past, on the other hand, there was always talk of our childhoods, our dreams, our heartbreaks; discussions of literature, philosophies—the biggest topics we could come up with. With those other guys, it was always the conversations that got me more than how they looked or even how they touched me.

And the reason those kinds of supernova dialogues have been so important to me is because they’ve always seemed like the most potent evidence that maybe I’m not ultimately alone in the world.

But while Rose knew plenty about my career and my daily errands, he didn’t know much about the things that really define me—not about my mother’s death when I was a kid, about my formative experiences and escapades, about how I hope I’ll write a novel that people will fall in love with.

By the same token, I’d never heard about the person who’d had the biggest impact on him, his first love or, I dunno, what’s dysfunctional about his family. We’d never read each other our favorite lines from, say, Rilke and Roethke; never talked about Susan Sontag and Edmund Wilson; and—even though he was Mr. Movie—never compared and contrasted Fellini and Fassbinder. (What the hell had we talked about, anyway?)

So … should I even bother with the date? Why put either of us through the hassle? Problem was, I wanted to hold on to the friendship because, as much as I crave those big moments of emotional connection and think that they’re all I really need or want, I’d gotten hooked on something: the mundane comfort that came from our quotidian how-was-your-day chit-chats.

So I packed myself off to the W, hoping I’d figure out a way to handle it, realizing it could be a bad scene.

After I pushed through the revolving door and greeted him, Rose kissed me on the cheek. “Wow!” he said. “You’re even better in person. Those dark eyes. And that hair!”

Freaking a little, I pointed at my head. “I told you I’m totally prematurely gray underneath, right? One-hundred-percent dye job, baby.”

I only felt more awkward when he handed me the dreaded flower. “Mind if I pull off the stem and put the head in my bag?” I asked. Without waiting for an answer, I went ahead with, uh, castrating it. He was cool about my lack of graciousness, which made me realize I should try acting like a grown-up for dinner.

But it’s never easy to be relaxed and friendly while sending the message that nothing sexual is going down. So I told an inappropriate story about a drunken hook-up. I also sent coded hints: I stopped drinking after two Sancerres; offered to split the check; said I wasn’t up for dessert or a nightcap. But then, before I told him I was ready to head home—alone—he swooped in for a kiss. “I just can’t,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not into it.”

Awkwardly, civilly, he put me in a taxi. Before it pulled away, I said out the window, “I’d really like it if we could stay friends.”

The days passed without a word from him. A week later, though, when he called, I picked up. “I met someone else,” he said, “and we have our first date tonight. Maybe she’ll help me get over you.” He went on: “Question, though: Do I bring her a rose?”

I laughed. “Just bring yourself. And be yourself, because—” But I stopped before launching into any platitudinous bullshit. Because I hadn’t exactly been honest with him or myself during our cellular courtship, had I? No, I’d fooled us both into believing I was romantically interested in him because he’d been such a good palliative for my loneliness.

So I continued: “You know, this poet I like, Rilke, he says life isn’t any less painful for lovers, only they keep using each other to hide their own fates.”

“What’s that mean?”

“We all die in the end, I guess.”

“Oh. How lovely.”

“I think what I meant to say was … well, have fun tonight. I hope it works out. Call to tell me how it goes, will you?”

We’re friends again now, Rose and I, and both as lonely as ever.

The Emotional Spark: What’s That Thing We All Long For?