Dating has been tough for me lately, as I’m sure it’s been for all us singles. I just didn’t know how strange it would be. Where are you supposed to meet people these days? My preferred means was always through organic interaction, but I can’t leave my house, and whenever I do strangers treat each other like a fleshy bag of viral particles. But I can’t blame them – I’ve done it too. For some reason I keep telling myself eye-contact with someone I don’t know might get me sick. Obviously, I’m not going to find a girlfriend this way in these distanced times. In order to meet a girl you had to get close to them both emotionally and physically. Keeping a six-foot separation for long enough would be enough to end a marriage, never mind my prospects of nurturing a new relationship.
So instead I’ve resorted to the same alternative all millennials dread, but partake in nonetheless: dating apps. I’m on them all, you name it. At first, I thought I’d just start out with the most popular: Matchbox and Beehive. I’m a fairly attractive guy, I thought. ‘Correct’ height, relatively fit, good-paying job. But it turns out you need to be in interesting photographs to really catch someone’s attention and unfortunately as a male is his early 20s, I only have one interesting picture: it’s of an ex and me on our junior year college spring break to Cancun. She’s looking better than I care to admit in a 2-piece yellow swimsuit with her bright Hollywood smile. Standing beside her is a twig that’s fallen fresh off a birch tree and floated down to Mexico in a pair of trunks fitted with novelty flamingos sipping beers. The picture was from before I started lifting weights and taking an interest in fitness, but it would have to do. I attempted to crop her out of the photo, but it ended up looking like I’d snapped an appendage off the twig, leaving it to lean against some nothingness at its right side. Who was going to ‘swipe right’ on a picture like that? It’s funny to me that my entire dating life and presumably marital future and unborn children hinged on a poorly cropped photo of a 1.0 version of myself.
To my relief, I was wrong – I got a match. Sure, it took longer than I would have liked, in a way that started to deplete my own self-worth. I essentially struck out on the first two apps. I only noticed that when I started to see the same profiles I’d already swiped through 3 and 4 times over giving me an eerie sensation that “I’ve been here before”. So, I expanded my horizons and downloaded…well, everything: Just Brunch, Cup of Joe, eSymphony, OkEros, you name it. With my phone’s storage space filling up and the sounds of tumbleweeds rolling through my various inboxes I almost decided to call it quits until I could meet someone in person again.
But then I found the app that changed my life, but perhaps not in the manner I had bargained for. Uninstalling it will never remotely wipe the experience from my mind. As I scrolled through pages of dating apps on my phone I came across it around page 5 or 6: right in that sweet spot between apps with one-star reviews and those that may as well not exist. It was called Misfit. I nearly missed it due to my frustrated quick swiping, but its icon’s bright orange background caught my eye. In the foreground was a bizarre couple holding hands: one was a polka-dotted elephant with long red hair, the other a jack-in-the-box with jet-black bangs and white makeup, but both smiling sharply. Credits to the designer: my interest was piqued. The description said it was a dating app for those who felt cast out from society, those who’d been rejected everywhere else. I knew barring a global pandemic such tags didn’t apply to me, but what can I say? I was getting desperate. So I downloaded the app at perhaps my point of lowest self-confidence which was never a wise state to be making choices in. A word from the wise – it could always be worse than the single life…much worse. But it’s just an app…right?
I wasn’t sure anyone was even using Misfit since it forced an admission of societal castigation to even consider downloading. But within an hour I had a match. I expected my heart to leap from my chest in anticipation upon finding someone, but my initial reaction was more of a shrug and a nod. It was like getting a job interview you’d attend for the experience, but never actually take.
I couldn’t figure out why she’d chosen to download Misfits. Perhaps it was the same reason as me. She seemed fairly normal from all signs on her profile. The only strange thing was her gallery sported five photos of her wearing a mask in various places. Maybe she was into medicine, maybe she had an autoimmune disease or some other life-threatening condition. Her eyes reminded me of a Spring’s new foliage, her hair browner than Fall leaves, but voluminous and lively. And I could tell just from her gazing eyes how beautiful she was when she smiled. But it was as if she’d never taken a picture of herself before the days of mask-wearing. Given I only had one inaccurate picture to offer to potential dates I understood I didn’t have much room for critique.
She reached out only seconds after the initial match notification. It was fast enough to suggest she was just another bot account attempting to catfish me. The first two messages came through in a flash: “hey” and “what’s up” one after the other. I paused, allowing myself to bask in blissful relief. I’d finally found a match. But I didn’t stall for long, making sure to answer quickly enough to ensure I wouldn’t blow my one shot. But it wasn’t just a shot as I’d find out. We messaged for the next 3 hours non-stop, each of us taking no more than 30 seconds to respond. A 30-second gap in messages would send a slight panic down my spine until the relief of a stack of text flushed into the screen. We connected immediately and more passionately than I thought possible. It was as if she was an old friend I hadn’t seen in a few years.
I felt emboldened. I felt I could say anything and she would have already been thinking the same. “Do you drink coffee?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied immediately.
“What would you say to a trip to Starcup sometime this week?”
“Of course,” she typed and punctuated with a winking smiley face. I remember finding it slightly strange that she used the colon-parentheses method instead of the emoji, but maybe she was more mature than I was used to. “Just one thing,” she followed up.
I sent just a question mark, afraid of what she’d say. I didn’t know what to expect, but my recent run of luck informed the worst.
“I’ll just need to wear a mask when we see each other.” I didn’t respond at first, wondering if there was a catch. These days I wouldn’t expect anything less than a clothed mouth. “It’s just there’s a few things going on with me, you know?”
“Yeah of course,” I replied. It was strange she said ‘with me’ and not the planet, perhaps. I was under the impression all of humanity was suffering from the same ailment. “No problem. I’ll see you on Wednesday, Dana.”
She sent another typed out smile.
The next time I messaged her was to let her know I was wearing a light-blue UConn sweatshirt and dark blue jeans. “I’ll be on the left of the front doors right when you walk up to the place,” I typed. “I got us a table.” Even though I was sitting, I made sure to keep my mask on. First impressions are everything and she had clearly made a point of it.
A chair screeched against the sidewalk in front of me. I jolted and tossed my phone upon the table, then shivered as if my body wasn’t expecting anyone to come – like I’d physically trained myself to be stood-up. “Hey, Evan?” she inquired.
“Yeah, Dana?” I responded, as if anyone else named Evan was sitting there waiting for a Misfits date.
“How’s it going?” she asked sheepishly. Dana offered a constricted wave though I was only two feet away from her across the petite circular table. Quickly I realized physical interaction would be out of the question.
I nodded back to acknowledge her awkward wave and sat back down. “Have you ever been here before?” I asked.
She said she hadn’t, so I recommended a drink to her. But she said she wasn’t feeling up to a coffee, and wanted to walk through the adjacent park instead. I found it strange since we’d already agreed to coffee, but I wasn’t about to make a fuss over something so small.
So we crossed the road together and walked side-by-side through the park, lamenting our individual online dating difficulties all the way.
“What brought you to Misfits?” she asked, her gorgeous eyes, swinging back and forth between mine. “Why not anything else like I don’t know…Beehive? You sure are attractive enough for any of those apps.”
“Yeah, I wanted to try something new I guess,” I started with a lie. But I then realized the lie sounded creepier than the truth. “I downloaded the other apps actually and didn’t have too much luck with any of them. I don’t have too many pictures of myself so I guess that’s part of it. I also never have anything too interesting to put in my bio.”
“You’re telling me you’ve been to Cancun and have nothing interesting to put in your bio?” she jested.
I laughed along with her. It was absurd wasn’t it? The only picture I had to offer was not in my bedroom or lying on the kitchen floor – it was in a tropical paradise.
She shifted a shoulder as if to playfully nudge me, but she never made contact. “I could take a picture for you.” Dana offered. I was hesitant at first, but knew I needed it especially if this thing wasn’t to work out. Who knew if my Cancun picture would ever pick up another match. But at the time I felt it really would work out. “Give me your phone,” she said. I opened the camera app as if she wouldn’t be able to find it and handed the phone to her. Dana wrapped her fingers gently around it on the opposite side, making sure to stay as far from my fingers as she could. I stepped back in front of a large flowery bush, thinking it’d make a decent background. “Oh, great spot,” she said. “I love it.”
Dana snapped a few pictures of me in front of that bush and giggled while she did it. I posed with my hand rubbing my masked chin as someone of my social stature always would. I then flexed my modest muscles while looking off into the distance and finally smiled for a picture I’d actually use on my dating profiles. But I don’t care to share any of those pictures here, as they’re both embarrassing and not so relevant.
She handed the phone back to me. “What do you think?”
I heaved out my nose, slightly amused, slightly impressed with her photography skills. “They’re great,” I said. “I appreciate it. Now it’s your turn.”
“No, I shouldn’t,” she responded.
“Come on,” I coaxed her. “You said you loved that background. You can’t not take a picture with a bush of that quality.”
She giggled and nodded, then danced her way over to where I stood. And then something strange happened. Her previous oddities were all but eclipsed in one snap of the camera. I didn’t realize it at the time but there was something jarring about that photograph I took.
“I’ll text it to you now,” I said. This was my not-so-sly way of getting her actual number so we could communicate off of the Misfits app. Believe it or not, it worked.
Overall our date went fantastic – better than you could expect any online meetup to go. We hit it off just like we did through text messages. But at the end of our time together she told me, “I can’t ever take off this mask. I hope that’s okay with you.” I told her it was, but at the time I didn’t know how serious she was.
When I got back to my apartment later that night I opened my phone to see the pictures she took of me. Stunning if I do say so myself – the subject matter is naturally impeccable. And then I swiped to see the final picture – the one of her. There Dana stood in her floral mask in front of that immaculate bush. Her eyes pierced through the photo as if we made eye-contact while I looked at it. Even through her mask I could tell she wasn’t smiling – her eyes were too relaxed, too focused. Her hair waved down her shoulders, over her cheetah print jacket and all but obscuring her necklace. But then there was that one aspect of the photograph that made my skin crawl: I don’t remember taking it in black and white.
Why would I do that? After making such a big deal over the bush behind her I wouldn’t wash away its color and hers. I couldn’t make sense of it. But I had to have taken it in black and white. I mean…after all there it was in grayscale, staring back at me.
We texted back and forth a bit more, but I never brought up the photograph. I didn’t want to scare her off, or at the worst have her think I was some sort of idiot. Each time we texted I felt the photograph weighing over the conversation, but I couldn’t be sure if she felt it too – unlikely at best. I was probably just worrying myself unnecessarily, I told myself.
The next time I saw her was in the same park we’d met in the first time. Again, she gave some half-baked excuse for not wanting to get food. It was along the lines of restaurants being too crowded these days. I didn’t prod too much since it was still early days between us. Our second walk through the park was just as smooth as the first, though quite a bit colder. Soon we’d have to see each other inside, or maybe she thought we’d grow tired of each other by then.
As we parted ways and she began to walk from wherever she had come I glanced at my phone again. Her image was…fading. Now I couldn’t tell if I was losing my mind. This went beyond the mere color scheme of the photograph and sunk its teeth into the surreal. The bush behind her remained intact in its original definition. But Dana – the girl I had just spent two full dates with was fading away. The lighting around her brightened and the detail faded. All I could see was the brightening outline of the woman before me and a washed-floral mask below her burning green eyes.
“Dana,” I called out. She stopped short and spun around. “Hey can I ask you one more thing before you go?”
She nodded and approached. “Of course, Evan. What did you want to ask?”
I shoved the phone deep back into my pocket as she grew nearer. I wanted to ask her my question without providing evidence as to why. Maybe it was just a glitch with my phone…or so I hoped. “Um…you know how you… you asked me why I was on Misfits?”
“Yes,” she replied, egging me to continue.
“Well I wanted to ask you the same, you know…out of curiosity. Why did you choose Misfits? You seem perfectly normal to me.”
“Really, you mean it?” she blushed and I looked away, unsure why saying she was ‘normal’ was so monumental. “It’s this mask, Evan.” Dana replied. “It tends to turn people off. They get the wrong impression, you know?”
I nodded, but didn’t understand at all. I spun my arms through the air and chuckled. “Get the wrong impression? Like what? You take the virus seriously? I mean look around.”
“Virus?” she asked.
I stammered. Was she kidding? She must be. But she wasn’t. Her expression remained stone-cold with a hint of perplexion. I forced a laugh that resonated as a whimper. She stared back at me, her eyes as stern and fixed as they were in the photograph. It was then that I noticed she was wearing the same outfit she was on our first date. I was never too keen on something so subtle before, but it stared back at me along with her eyes with near vengeance. That cheetah print jacket, black shirt underneath… the necklace I could hardly read. Something greater than a glitched picture was afoot. “You’re kidding, right? You’ve got to be living under a rock.” I tried to confirm. My words came off harsher than intended, but I couldn’t help the boiling demons prancing through my gut.
She stepped forward once more. She’d never been so close to me. If I breathed too heavily I’d accidentally touch her. Her eyes darted behind me, then to the right and left. “I appreciate you wearing a mask to make me feel more comfortable, Evan.” She said calmly.
My eyes widened involuntarily. I scanned what little showed of her unchanging expression. I watched the mask as she spoke to me. It didn’t move. “I really like you Evan.”
I nodded and with a shaking voice said, “I really like you too, Dana.” But I wasn’t even half sure of the veracity of my comments anymore. I responded out of fear over sincerity.
“I feel like myself around you… like I don’t need this mask anymore.”
I knew her words were meant to be reassuring but they did nothing but unnerve me further. I stepped back, but she mimicked my movements and our distancing was intact like some kind of deathly waltz. Dana lifted her bony fingers around her ear as she brushed her hair back. She then grasped the mask’s strap from behind her ear and tilted her head to take it off. “I’ll show you,” she said. “Do you promise to still like me?”
I nodded, but once more didn’t mean it. Dana removing the mask felt more intimate than either of my past lovers stripping naked before me. When my ex removed her shirt for the first time I had an estimate of what I’d see underneath. This time I had no idea.
She tilted her head the other way to remove the second strap from her other ear. Then, while her face pointed towards the ground, she allowed the mask to fall kindly into her whitening palms. Dana’s head slowly tilted back upwards to face me. With each extra degree of movement my fear built. At first it was nothing to gawk at, but I only saw everything I did when the mask was still on so far. As her neck craned more and more I noticed a sort of absence forming. I finally saw the bottom of her nose, hooking down and reddened at the tip from the mask’s constant pressure. I wondered if she ever took it off when she was alone. And then presented the moment I’d been waiting for: what exactly did she want to show me beneath her nose? What horrors awaited below?
Nothing, to put it quite simply. But nothing doesn’t begin to describe it. I’d attribute ‘nothing’ to some blunt, anti-climactic normality, but this was anything but. I mean nothing in the sense that there was truly nothing. Beneath her nose I naturally expected her upper lip, perhaps brutally scarred or burnt, but at least it’d be a lip. Instead there was a void, a nothingness engulfing the absence of skin, bone, flesh…anything. Everything below her cheeks was substituted with a black hole enveloping her neck – a cavity of sorts staring back at me with her head fully cocked backward now.
She lowered her head. I stared into her unchanged eyes with horror. I noticed my hands and legs shook uncontrollably. “You still like me, right? You promised.”
I heard her speak as clearly as I could hear anyone else – but how? Her face didn’t move, nothing did. There was no jaw to complete her words, not even a tongue to be seen. Her face moved as much as that of a ventriloquist attempting to deceive. I couldn’t make sense of it, as if her missing face wasn’t enough. Apparently, I’d stood in silent horror too long. I didn’t answer her quickly enough. “Do you still like me, Evan?” she repeated so clearly. But yet again, her face didn’t move. Her eyes pierced back into mine as she angrily awaited a response. I could hear her pain screeching in my mind. And it was then I found my answer. I didn’t hear her speak as much as I thought it. She was in here with me, side-by-side with my thoughts. She was in my head.
Needless to say, I stopped seeing her. It was maybe the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my life. In fact, I decided to take a break from dating all together since Dana. But it doesn’t seem to matter whether I see her or not. From time to time, I can still hear her in my head, swimming alongside my own thoughts. “Do you still like me, Evan?”