After We Wake

Photo: Michael Fertig via Unsplash

I woke before dawn, incredibly thirsty and desperately needing to go to the bathroom. Whenever I slept somewhere new, I had a tendency to shove all physical needs aside until they were nearly impossible to ignore.

Similar to the way humans behave in groups — going to the bathroom only when the moment is opportune for everyone — I fought to wait just a little longer but this time it couldn’t wait. A smattering variety of drinks at the bar the night before can do that.

I felt along the ground in the darkness, searching for something to wear. Eventually my fingers found fabric — his button-down shirt from last night, crumpled haphazardly near the foot of the headboard. I put it on over my naked body, feeling somewhat guilty that I was borrowing it without his knowledge or permission.

Tiptoeing down the hall, I pushed the bathroom door open and closed it gently behind me until I heard the soft confirmation of a click.

I met Charlie* on Bumble, an online dating app unique in that after a connection is made, it’s the woman who needs to make the first move. Charlie and I shared similar interests and even had mutual friends. We were both former DJs, relatively athletic, and super geeky at heart.

I’d been working on mobile apps for about four years by then, and had yet to fully trust the idea of meeting a partner on an app. I embraced the convenience that apps to offer — immediate access to services, resources, news, and so on.

Besides, lately I’d felt that visiting the grocery store was ultimately a sucker’s move — why not order everything through an app, therefore never needing to leave the apartment ever again?

But what about dating? The concept itself always rendered it somewhat nebulous and therefore false: the idea that we can successfully quantify compatibility between two people, A and B, through imprecise presentations of self.

Self-curated content paired with a lack of pure communication equated, in my mind at least, to a gamified self-validation that hovered above any truly verifiable way of discovering meaningful connection.

Besides, who wants to market their real self?

At the time I met Charlie, I was in the midst of a very focused phase consisting of nothing but working and writing. I was single with no attachments to anything other than my job, which I loved. Still, I was lonely. And so I swiped.

Another variable in digital dating, by the way, lies in its methodology. Some days we feel more accepting and swipe right with abandon, indicating interest in nearly everyone.

On other days, we are way less forgiving and instead swipe left. On this particular evening I was feeling extra lonely and therefore generous with my swipes.

There was also something seemingly different about him — a tiny bit of magic that jumped off the screen at that particular moment in time. It didn’t hurt that he was incredibly attractive: 6’6” with a great smile, muscular arms, and beautiful brown eyes.

“Boom!” We matched. I typed out a quick missive. He responded immediately and two nights later we met for dinner.

It was the best first date of my life. Naturally, I didn’t eat anything and talked the entire time.

In the two months Charlie and I dated, everything held magic. We danced in clubs all night and rode bikes across the Golden Gate bridge, speeding down hills and around corners until our cheeks hurt from the either the wind or smiling or both. We hiked to remote beaches, took ferry rides while holding hands, and had long dinners speculating about the beauty of futures unknown.

At the same time I had questions circling in my head, tiny warning signs I chose to ignore. There were important parts omitted from his life story, things I wished he’d ask about me but never did. In retrospect, a very simple “What are you looking for at this phase in your life?” would’ve gone a long way. It would’ve saved hours of rumination, trying to figure out this person who turned out to be not so complex after all.

I was so disconnected from myself that I chose not to trust anything but the present. And it turned out that whatever would happen between Charlie and I, the present was exactly what I needed at that particular moment in time.

Prior to swiping right, the last man I dated was the one I thought I’d marry. About a year and six months before Charlie he’d unceremoniously move out of our otherwise perfect South Williamsburg home.

My therapist provided input that was wayward at best. “A girl like you, living in the city, should have at least three men in rotation at any given time,” he said, wagging his pen at me. “This is the time in your life for getting drunk and falling out of cabs!”

I had a feeling this plan wasn’t tenable for the long term, and after a few months of giving it a hearty try decided that it was time for a change.

So, I left everything I knew, disbanded all that I possessed, and moved to San Francisco, where I knew virtually no one.

I had described to my therapist the process of throwing things away, giving away whatever I had left after moving four times in three years between Brooklyn, Manhattan, and now San Francisco. I was afraid, but knew it was what I had to do in order to escape myself.

“Isn’t there a John Denver song about that?” was his reply.

Six months later at a brunch in sunny San Francisco, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one. Many of my new girlfriends had also moved from Manhattan to the Bay following a breakup. “Starting over,” we said.

So there I was, quietly shuffling myself back to Charlie’s bedroom. He was awake, facing the cooling space where I had been sleeping just moments before.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and you were curled up over there,” he said with a gentle smile. “In a little ball?” I smiled back. I didn’t tell him that’s the way I sleep when I’m afraid.

Through the window behind the bed frame, a thin slice of blue light emerged. The neighborhood was beginning to wake. The clattering of cookware could be heard from the coffee shop downstairs and the occasional trigger of a car’s ignition interrupted the chirping of birds preparing for their own version of a Saturday morning.

I barely knew this neighborhood. Come to think of it, I hardly knew where I was at any given moment. Maybe this was on purpose. San Francisco never moved me the way New York did.

And maybe swiping right was my attempt at being brave in a different kind of way.

“Come back into here?” He waved at the space between his arms with half-open eyes. I wondered what hid behind those gorgeous brown eyes of his. On our first date they were wide open.

When I moved to San Francisco a year ago, I made a choice to always choose courage over comfort.

In that process, risk versus reward became an actual thing. It couldn’t be quantified through an app. We just put ourselves out there in a vulnerable state — whether we’re actually naked or just feeling that way — and hope for the very best.

Maybe we hit it one out of five times: the right person to forge a friendship with, the promising job interview that leads to an eventual offer, the casual swipe that leads to a potential mate.

Over time, I’d grow to love San Francisco. Eventually, I’d feel ready to call the city home.

After all, a sense of love and belonging starts on the inside before manifesting its way out. That’s where we should start. Wherever we happen to rise.