Since then, it's been Allan in Toronto, Larry in Brooklyn, and Mark in Phoenix. There's been a witty London stranger and a banker in Mexico City, a physician in West Palm Beach, and computer wonks from South Jersey to Zurich. I met them all through an on-line Jewish singles forum.
In person, I'm reserved and sometimes shy. But communicating from behind a computer monitor has brought out the femme fatale within. Cyberspace is a place where the verbal finesse of a practiced writer rules supreme. During a real-time computer chat, exchanging one-on-one banter, I can dazzle my correspondents with a clever word here, a coy rejoinder there. Some are bowled over simply by my typing speed.
A woman friend of mine theorizes that e-mail relationships offer intimacy-challenged men "the illusion of closeness without the reality." And so I hear from much younger suitors whose romantic ardor I gently discourage and from overseas romantics whose invitations are tempting but impractical. The flirting is fun, but I draw the line at cybersex - not even with the Cleveland charmer who proposed marriage during our first two-hour chat.
Still, I'm only a keyboard away from adventure and intrigue. If I sense a spark during a chat, I can trade e-mail addresses and continue the correspondence privately or arrange another on-line rendezvous: "Meet you at 10 p.m. Wednesday in the singles' forum." With a select few correspondents, I've shared phone numbers.
So far, my most intriguing - and bemusing - on-line encounter has been with Phil Troy from Montreal. After our first e-mail exchange, I had a nagging hunch. Was there a chance, I asked him, that he was a red-haired Penn State engineering major and frat member from the seventies?
"Yep," came the reply, although he added that he couldn't place me. Twenty minutes later I received his second e-mail. Was I quiet, and had I lived in North Halls? Bingo. Cyberspace is a small world.
While we had dated only about four times in 1974 and 1975, Phil and I became born-again on-line friends. A rapid succession of e-mails followed as we filled each other in on the intervening twenty-two years. Our paths had taken similar turns: both of us had gone on to Ivy League graduate schools, he to Yale and I to Brown. We both had lived in Washington, D.C., and Center City, Philadelphia, at various times. Phil had gone to Canada to teach at McGill, then had started his own business as a computer consultant. I also had gone out on my own, in 1985, as a freelance writer. Now in our early forties, neither of us had married.
A few months later, forty-three-year-old Phil is driving from Montreal to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to visit his sister. He promises to call when he arrives. My virtual friendship is about to go "FTF" - face to face, in e-mail lingo.
"It's about time you called, after twenty-two years," I tease when I answer the phone, trying to conceal my surprise at the unfamiliar sound of Phil's voice. I'm finding the transition from e-mail to telephone a bit unnerving. We make plans to meet for dinner in Philadelphia.
The big night arrives. After half a lifetime, I nearly don't recognize my date. Phil has neglected to tell me that he's shed the amorphous beard and nerdy glasses he wore in college. Over dinner, we chat about our jobs, families, and dating histories. I observe, amused, that he hasn't even finished one beer - not the Phil I used to know. "I lost my taste for drinking after getting into meditation," he explains. I marvel silently.
We joke about our lack of social skills in college. He can't remember my major and isn't sure he ever asked. I admit that I was practically mute around men back then.
At the end of the evening, Phil walks me to my car and mumbles something in French - a bon mot picked up in Montreal, no doubt. In the winter cold, he waits to make sure my car will start. "We should get together again when I'm in town," he suggests. I agree, and the two of us smile uncertainly, as if we're lingering once again at the door of a college dorm.
That night I lie awake for a long time, thinking about this unbidden collision of my past and present. Tonight I see no resolution of what was and what might have been, only the impermeable darkness of time that connects us to our histories and hints at the future. You can run to cyberspace, I've discovered, but you can't hide.