Love, Liberally



Neighborhood: Internet

It was January 2022, almost a year since my breakup. The air was chilly and filled with Omicron. I’d reached my limit of stoical solitude and turned to OkCupid. My profile, I hoped, would present as light, clear, and open. 

I used phrases like, “Bundling up and dining outdoors these days.” Read: I’m risk-averse but adaptable. Read deeper: I’m self-protective and covid-neurotic, but I’ll sit at a table on West 58th on a windy evening with trucks belching and e-bikes careening and city smells wafting, because I’m game and doing my best.

I wrote: “Mulled wine and spiked cider help!” Read: I’ll get tipsy with you. Read deeper: I’m trying to stay warm and would love company!

Also, “I’m a ‘yes, and’ person….love a good walk and chat….let’s see what bubbles up.” Meaning you’ll exhaust me if we get too linear, but I’ll walk miles by your side if our banter stays light and lateral.

I listed no fussy deal breakers and made no specific asks. I posted no glam shots, no over-the-shoulder, check-out-my-cute-butt photos, though I did use some old professional head shots, after getting assurances from guy friends that the images were still valid.

It had been years since I’d done online dating, so I had to adjust to the new generation of bait-and-switch pop-up ads for obligatory upgrades. I purchased one that would let me see the faces of guys who “liked” me. It was an additional $6.99, or maybe twice that, and it made the real magic happen: a gallery of blurred male faces turned instantly into clear thumbnail pictures of guys smiling, posturing, and flexing their muscles.

I looked and I gasped. Was it him? It was his first name. But the last time I’d looked at (googled) his image, was just before the 2020 elections. He was an editor at a New York-based, conservative Jewish political journal.

I’m no conservative, and I consider myself Jewish only in my ability to kvetch and whine and the instinct to answer a question with a question. (Why shouldn’t I answer a question with a question?) But in the months leading up to the 2018 midterms, I had started listening to his journal’s podcast, thinking that a group of non-hysterical, non-ranting Republicans might deliver the driest and most realistic analysis of whether or not Democrats would retake the House. I also thought that listening to a relatively rational conservative point of view could be good for me, information-wise and as a counterbalance to my emotional state.

In my then unrelenting hysteria, I had asked myself, “Is what’s happening really as bad as it reads in the headlines?” I didn’t want affirmative answers. So I listened to the conservative Jews. They were witty and delivered reasonable-sounding statistics and historical context. They had a magnetic kind of logic. And Ari (I’ve changed his name) had a gravelly baritone that I loved. I also admired the way he seemed to relay the full weight of a thoroughly considered and deeply felt political essay in a single exhale.

Not that I was listening much to his actual words––words about left-wing uprisings, the beauty of the American judicial system, and disorders caused by irrational fear of Covid. I just loved his hysteria-resistant, nerdy-genius, monotone voice. I had loved it so much that I found myself looking for his picture online, which, it turned out, I also liked. Not much for smiling, but the gaze was strong.

And now here he was again, over a year later, in a dating-app love gallery. My love gallery. It was Ari. He liked me.

What’s more, we had stuff in common. Among his likes, he included hotel bars and listening to LPs of old-timey tunes. In answer to a question about hobbies, he wrote that he spent a lot of time contemplating the nature of the universe. Among his dislikes: the bad subway car.

I “liked” him back, then called my friend Lisa, a dating app veteran.

“Send him a message,” Lisa said. “People disappear fast.”

“Can I wait a few hours?” I wanted him to message first.

“Yes, but don’t wait too long.”

A few hours later, Ari’s message came:

“Nina, you’re radiant.”

My profile goal had worked! 

I paced my studio apartment, butterflies pluming up inside me. My feet were hardly on the floor. I called Lisa again.

“Thank him and say something nice about his profile,” she said.

“What a lovely compliment, Ari,” I wrote. “What are some of your favorite hotel bars and/or what have you concluded about the nature of the universe?”

“The answers to those questions are intimately connected,” he wrote. “I suggest we meet at a hotel bar to discuss.”

Raging cognitive dissonance: A hotel bar? In the middle of a rocket-launch Covid surge?

“I’d love to,” I wrote, “but with this new surge, would you settle for a walk—for now?”

I hoped that little em-dash suggested tantalizing promises, steamy seduction.

An hour or so later his response came: “I’m afraid my days of pandemic walking dates are over. I’m vaccinated and boosted. Omicron is a cold. Virtually everyone I know has had it.”

Obviously, he was shutting me down. But I ignored my instinct to cut and run. He was a man of logic, after all. A debater. Don’t be meek, I thought. Stand your ground.

I put on my best digital pout: “Oh no!” I wrote. “I think this is just bad timing. You would have been my first pandemic walk date. I recently broke up with someone and only just joined OkCupid today. Is a walk just a non-starter for you?”

Was that pathetic? Was it a reasonable request that someone consider my point of view? Just a fun way to use the phrase “non-starter”? (A little of all three?)

“I wish you the best!” he wrote.

Everything went dark and dizzy, like I’d stood up too quickly.

How do you call someone radiant, then walk away over something so minor?

I texted my brother, a music professor who, years ago, taught a seminar on how to be cool when dating:

“I put up a profile on OkCupid and 5 hrs later I got a ‘like’ from one of my favorite political podcasters.”

“The Jewish conservative one?” Ben wrote.

“Yeah but… yeah but…” I wrote.

I could hear Ben’s restraint and his neutral, politically correct personality kicking in.

“If your goal is not to get Covid,” he wrote, “then avoiding a bar date with somebody who says everybody they know has gotten it sounds like a smart idea.”

I texted another friend, Anne, a single mother with no time for shit like this.

“Is it mean to wish him long Covid?” Anne wrote.

She delivered sample dialog:

Ari: “I wish you the best.”

Nina: “I wish you long Covid.”

“800 guys have liked me,” I whined. “140 have sent me messages. Ari was the only seriously handsome and uber intelligent one of the lot.”

“You can’t be sure of that,” she wrote. She coached me further:

Ari: “I wish you the best.”

Nina: “Thank you for revealing your controlling nature before I wasted a date on you.”

I protested. “He’s just sick of pandemic life,” I texted. “He’s vaxxed and wants to move on and wants a like-minded person.”

Intellectually, I understood that Ari had spared me, in more ways than one. I briefly imagined becoming intimate with someone capable of being so curt and abrupt.

“From what I’ve seen,” my brother wrote, “conservatives prefer to take a hardline approach, no compromises. My way or the highway… so yes, he likely would have caused you some serious hurt in the long run.”

But I was already hurt. Absurdly so.

He’ll change his mind, I thought.

And what’s this? OkCupid was telling me that there was indeed a message from Ari waiting for me. I was vindicated!

Except there was no new message from him, just the same “I wish you the best” rejection. 

The only way to get rid of that message balloon alert was to write him back.

“You too!” I wrote, and then committed to seeing who else was out there while Ari came to his senses.

Except that the next time I looked, our messages were gone. His profile, too.

He’d un-matched me. He’d X-ed me out.

My heart dropped and jerked like a manually operated freight elevator. He was gone. Forever. A loop of insane thoughts swarmed me: Where did I go wrong? I should have done x instead of y…Can he re-match me and find me again?

The rejection was such unconscionable torture, my brain kept spitting out crazy thoughts to distract me, block me, from the feeling.

I knew Ari was no one to me, but still it fucking hurt. The thoughts swarmed for a few hours, then I got a grip––not by pushing away the thoughts, but by feeling the feelings. I closed my eyes. It felt like I was being shoved away. Worse, shoved into an airless room. I was a deflating doll splayed on the floor. That’s what Ari’s rejection had done to me.

Go with it, I thought. I begin to visualize Ari hitting a big X button to blot me out. A Family Feud style X stamp began flashing before me. In my mind, I made him do it again, then again.

I felt a shift. The more times the imaginary Ari obliterated me, the more something self-sustaining and translucent––within me––emerged.

I expanded the experiment and invited all the people who’d ever X-ed me out to appear: guys I’d been in love with who’d toyed with me; family members who’d extended love conditionally, then withdrawn it; a client who breached a Letter of Agreement and stopped sending the checks and ghosted me after we’d gone through mediation.

Every time someone, in my mind’s eye, pressed the big X button, my breath deepened, my body become more solid, even as the translucence moved through me.  I felt free. I was no longer fundamentally affected by The Big X. I was light, clear, and open.

What had made me think I needed Ari so desperately?

Because I did! I had needed him to help me confront The Big X.

The fear of The Big X––being rejected, abandoned, nullified––is a menace. It hardens into a protective shell around me. The best thing I can do is soften that shell of fear.

Fear, unchecked, makes us see each other as potential threats. Fear of the Big X can make us fail to acknowledge, or even see, the value in others. We see only threat, bother, waste of time. (Political labels and tribalism help to exacerbate this.)

We X each other out, even as we fear being X-ed out.

In the end, though, we all need each other. We’ll destroy each other if we don’t embrace that simple fact.

I did need Ari. He needed me too. I wish him the best.


Nina Camp‘s humor and personal essays have been featured at HuffPost,, and Mogul Magazine

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§ One Response to “Love, Liberally”

  • Jody says:

    Loved this. I have endless experience with online dating. And now, at the grand age of 70 (you read that right), I’ve found HIM. I have a few hints, but the most important is what you’ve already discovered: love thyself. And I would debate with you about another: we don’t need one another. We WANT, but we don’t NEED. Small but vital distinction. Or so I purport!
    Best, best wishes from a fellow writer.

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