If I get one more message saying "So, does Harry Potter count?" I'm quitting OkCupid.
When I rejoined the dating site after a breakup last winter, I added a line to the bottom of my profile: "You should message me if: not every book in your favorites section is by a dude." And message me they have. I've become something of an inadvertent confessor for the book-reading single male population of New York City. This is not a job anyone should want and I absolutely brought it on myself.
Not much changed on OkCupid in the two years I was away. Still the infinite scroll of goofy photographs ("like Amazon but for humans," a friend once said), still the barrage of copy-pasted message, still the same survey questions just this side of painfully self-conscious. The app lives on my phone now instead of my computer, easier to thumb through in the bathroom and pass around to friends when I get an especially graphic or typo-riddled message. I don't use it well or often; I go months without thinking to check my inbox, weeks without replying to even the most promising people. But just knowing it's there has been a source of comfort, a tiny well I can lower a bucket into on nights when I need some possibility.
When I reactivated my account, I purged the outdated answers on my profile. I'm no longer a "recent graduate" and not enough of a Downton Abbey diehard to list it among my favorite shows. I deleted entire question fields and got rid of all the photos where my hair was so short I'd had to learn to shave the back of my own neck. And then I came to "You Should Message Me If." I'd never had an answer before, figuring it was pretty self-evident — "you would like to make out a bunch" — but this time around I decided to write about the unbearable exclusivity of dude-books.
Almost immediately after changing my profile, I started to get apologies.
The word "counts" has appeared in my inbox over and over again. (Probably second only to "nudes??") And I get the logic: Here I am, introducing this ~rule~ that many guys have never even considered, and they want to know if they're following it. Who hasn't wanted guidance like that, especially when it comes to something as fraught and fragile as dating? The flaw, of course, is that this thinking is in line with the idea that you can build up credit in exchange for someone's attention, that if you get enough Good Guy Points™ you can cash them in for dinner and a movie. (Each Karen Russell book is worth 10 points, btw, and movies are terrible first dates.)
And then there are the messages asking for recommendations. "You're not the first person to comment about guys only listing male authors," one boy wrote me. "I'm guilty of that, and it's kind of embarrassing. Any suggestions for me?" I get at least one of these a week and even though they're wholly well intentioned, I don't answer. Because... the internet exists! Because is this really the first time in your two (or, heaven forbid, three) literate decades on this planet that it's occurred to you to seek out brain padding by AN ENTIRE HALF of the population? Because you can do that very small amount of work on your own, or at least ask anyone in your life besides some random dyed-redhead on OkCupid to give you a hand.
My "You Should Message Me If" came about as a not-quite-tongue-in-cheek little test that's always whirred in the back of my mind. When someone's dating profile catches my eye, I glance through their list of defining books and movies and music; if the someone is a man and the works in question are entirely by (white, straight, dead) men, my excitement tends to wither. It's not a marker of utter sociopathy, nor of intractable chauvinism, but to me it reads as slightly small-minded, slightly unthinking, slightly boring. Remember that college professor who refused to teach the work of female writers? Do you really want to date that guy?
"But Alanna!" you type furiously. "That's not fair! We are so much more than our tastes! Don't you care about the worthwhile people you're skipping over just because they filled out their OkCupid profile while wasted one Sunday night and the only book they remembered ever enjoying was Portnoy's Complaint?"
Nah. We don't owe anyone our attraction nor our engagement. You're allowed to pass over someone's message because they have blonde hair, or because they are proudly brandishing a fish in their display photo, or because you're cranky and heartbroken and frustrated that the universe seems to be holding out on you. How a person chooses to represent their brainscape is no different. Besides, it's in no way a hard line — I've messaged and dated people who didn't "pass" (or who I met on Tinder and therefore knew nothing about besides their height and propensity toward Breaking Bad) — but more of a litmus test. It's such a tiny hurdle to clear. And if we're going to engage this imaginary Disney question of "fair," isn't it more upfront to tell folks that's how I'm thinking in the first place?
"Then you're being way too picky and you deserve to die alone, you [redacted][redacted]." Maybe! Bye!
What these months of messages have brought to light is that of course I'm not looking for a list of "acceptable" books. I'm not looking to date people with identical tastes as me or even the same worldview, and I certainly don't want anyone to bait a thirst trap with Alice Munro or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in order to seem enlightened-slash-boneable. The gulf between what we actually read and watch and listen to and what we write about in our dating profiles is massive, for one thing. (If my music section were 100% true to life it would read "Endless loop of Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen unless I happen to be listening to the instrumental score of an HBO show I've never watched.") For another, it's hardly a foolproof sign of compatibility. Motherfuckers read Virginia Woolf too.
But the books line is my way of filtering, of taking back a tiny bit of control amid the swirl of it all. It's a minuscule gesture, really, a helpless, optimistic wave. Dating has been hard for me since my last relationship ended. (N.B. Dating is hard, always, no matter what.) I fall too quickly or not at all; one day I'm buoyed by free time, by excitement over someone new, by the edgeless quality my life has taken on, and then the next morning I wake up feeling so small and so impossibly alone. Maybe I can create the person I want, I find myself thinking during late nights of scrolling, or at least flag them down. Maybe all it takes is that one magic sentence. Because in those moments there are a lot of things I'd like to write at the bottom of my profile, and not one of them has to do with Barbara Kingsolver or Toni Morrison:
"Message me if: You are smart and curious, but not so in your head you can't come visit mine."
"Message me if: You understand that people who are not like you are worthwhile, just as long as you're not smug about it."
"Message me if: You will make me a better version of myself and let me do the same for you."
"Message me if: You get it."
I could write all of that. I could chisel a stone tablet full of rules designed to coax the right people toward me and the wrong ones away, to feed my ravenous heart and protect it at the same time. I could change that sentence every day until I find someone or until they find me, until I finally (what a wild, childish thought) get to rest.
Or I could accept that there are no magic words. I could let myself sit with the knowledge that this is one thing I can't build or control, that the only one who can save me from my anxieties and my fears and my loneliness is me. And so I create a shorthand and hope — because that's what this is, all of it, dating and reading and being in the world, nothing but hope — that someone comes along who can read between the lines.