“Dear cunningvixen349, Your profile was pure pleasure—one of the most fascinating descriptions I’ve read. We definitely have things in common, both big and little. However, I only date women my own age or younger. I suspect that I don’t understand younger women, and I probably bore them. Nevertheless, your age would be an insurmountable barrier for us. Good luck in your search. Signed, eagleonthewing557.”

I stare at the screen. Lands sakes! How much abuse does a gal have to take? With the five years I’ve shaved off my biological age, I only superannuate him by three. What do these men want? I type my reply:

“Dear Cock On a String, Statistics show you’ll die a good fifteen years before I do. But if you’re not man enough for an older woman, it’s probably due to your short guy insecurity. Kiss my ass, Cunning Vixen.”

I hit send.

You’re probably thinking I’m a real bitch. Wait until you hear what Match.com has sent me so far. The shiatsu masseur had nice hands, but what a wimp. He tiptoed around manhole covers for fear of electrocution. The accountant from Bombay was sexy enough; I’ve always had a thing for brown skin, and that accent. A half-hour into our meeting he leaned toward me and asked, “What do you teenk? You want a relationship with me?” Whatever happened to foreplay? Maybe he should mail order a girlfriend, and really save time. The so-called famous TV producer was doing me a favor just to talk to me. And talk. And talk. A Talmudic lecture on the suffering of his people. Not that I have anything against Jews, mind you. I was married to one for thirty years. Enough, already. Then there was the poet. Nothing wrong with him, except his poetry. “The meandering tide plunders its slithering course among the reeds whilst dreaming as if afeared of a sudden shallowing draught.” Need I say more?

To me, Internet dating feels more like shopping than romance. The date is a commodity I take down from the shelf, try on, see if he fits, see if I look good in him. It’s hard to even like a man under such conditions, much less fall in love. It’s easier to love George.

I didn’t meet George on some flat screen, but in a smoked-filled downtown bar. Two years ago. He was onstage, wailing into the mic, playing blues guitar. He had long thin hair pulled back in a ponytail; that was before the drugs made his hair fall out (he’s even hotter bald, let me tell you). He was wearing slitlike shades that hid his eyes, a trimmed goatee sprinkled with grey, black velvet jacket, and red suede sneakers. The look was forty-nine going on sixteen. It was amateur night, so I knew I wasn’t going to find him on any charts. But he was good, to my ears. There was gravel in his voice, and he got down real low.

I went over to him after the set. He and his buds had taken a table in the back to watch the next group, a bunch of screamers working out their rage at being born after the glory days. I had to yell over the din, “Mind if I introduce myself? I’m looking for talent.”

He gave me a cool appraisal over the tops of his shades. I felt his look, and held my breath. We divorcees have to guard our personal appearance like the crown jewels. I was wearing jeans that fit like paint, and Victoria’s Secret has made cleavage available to everybody. I passed inspection. He pulled up a chair for me and asked what I would drink, then hollered to the waitress for two shots of Wild Turkey. I bellowed out my name. Lillian Glass. I was hoarse by the time I’d finished my spiel: “Putting together a benefit concert for Shout It Out, a nonprofit arts organization that nurtures new performance visions and creates a non market-based artistic awareness. Love to have you play.”

I waited for his answer, shooting a quick prayer to the Maker that it would be a yes, while the kids onstage had a stroke. In the sweet silence following their final chord George looked again over the top of his specs—it was dark in the bar and I don’t imagine he could see through them—and said, “Where y’all from, Lillian?”

It turns out George is Southern-born and bred, like me. Such a comfort to hear a bit of drawl in this northern city, that even after three decades doesn’t feel like home. For the next few weeks, while I was organizing the benefit, phone calls and emails snapped between us like wash on a line. I learned a thing or two about George: that he rode the rails as a teen, that he had sold cars, owned a pizza business, worked ten years in a funeral parlor, began and terminated study in theological seminary, and that he is married to his third wife, an ambitious young businesswoman on whom he is financially dependent. Taken, I thought with sorrow.

The night of the event we rented for cheap the top floor of a once-elegant hotel, where glass walls looking out on city lights can sure dress up a bunch of crazy dancers, actors, performance artists, and other vagabonds not accustomed to the high life. The idea was to raise money for Shout It Out by inviting all our rich and philanthropic friends to the tune of ten bucks a head. Since not many of us have rich friends, the room was mostly full of bums like us who’d been comped or weaseled their way past the ticket lady. Some folks paid, and since the refreshments and entertainment were donated by believers, we at least didn’t end up in the red.

I was in the red—my new red dress with the plunging neckline and short hemline. First thing George said, coming out of the elevator with his guitar and amp and boys in the band, “I always did like a woman in a red dress.”

“Hush your mouth!” I said. Trash talk tickles me. I sent him to the front of the room with the other performers, and went off to mingle and sneak sly peaks at George. Sometimes he would catch me and grin. I already knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t know the half of it. At the end of the evening he said to me, “Lillian, when am I going to see you again?”

“Lorda mercy, George, what are you asking?” The time had come to put an end to our fraternizing, to be prudent and unyielding. Yielding was what I wanted.

“Just to take you out to lunch.”

We met at an Indian restaurant on a weekday afternoon. It was cave-like, Oriental carpets hung on brick walls, brass servers and carved wood glimmering in the murk, and we were the only customers. We slid into a corner. “Welcome to the casbah, darlin,” George said.

That was the first of a year of lunches. I learned more about George. He likes Jungian psychology. In his spare time he invents calligraphic alphabets. He dotes on his two teenage boys, by his first wife. Oh, and he is seriously ill. That’s why he had to give up his day job in psychiatric intake. He feels like crap most of the time. I grew up in a family that didn’t permit illness. Any condition short of death is hypochondria. George is a world expert on his illness. I’m rather glad his wife gets to put up with him on a daily basis.

Why did I continue to meet George and bald-facedly flirt with him, when his interest in me seemed purely metaphysical? I should have been out shopping for someone who was available for more than lunch. But no. I thought if I just lived my fabulous life, a healthy, self-supporting, fascinating man would float in on the tide. Meanwhile, I was falling into unrequited love over plates of moo goo gai pan and palak paneer.

Things took a turn, I won’t say for better or worse, I’ll leave that for you to decide, when George suggested dinner. This time the restaurant was Italian, and George wanted to order off the menu. “You know how to make pasta puttanesca?” he asked the waiter.

This, after Giovanni had spent ten minutes reciting the evening’s specials in broken English. George instructed him on Italian cuisine until patient Giovanni said, “Of course, signor. As you weesh. Puttanesca.”

“No one makes it as well as I do,” George confided after the waiter left. “The way I check out a restaurant, I see if their puttanesca sauce is truly fresh.” I find this quality in George charming. He’s a know-all and flaunts it.

“Nothing better than a fresh whore,” I said.

He laughed, with an undercurrent of hidden entendre, a riptide that lasted throughout the meal. Over coffee I told him I’d repainted my apartment, my latest creative act. “You know, I’ve never seen your apartment,” he said, and he let that waft between us.

“You can,” I said. “If you have a strong heart. It’s a walk-up.”

“Fortunately,” he said, “my heart is one of my strongest organs.” I made no comment.

We climbed up the stairs of the old tenement and opened the door on my kitchen, where the first thing to greet visitors is the claw-footed bathtub.

“Very convenient,” George said. “You can answer the door while taking a bath.”

“I do all the time.”

“I’d like to see.”

“Would you?” I poured us glasses of wine and took him on the house tour, which is short, four rooms in a row, shotgun style we called it back home. We sat in my living room, me on the couch, George in the easy chair. But I felt like we were diving through unfamiliar waters and I suspected sharks were lurking. It got late, and George said, “I should go.”

How right he was! With regret, I walked him to the door and gave him one of those European kisses we’ve all learned how to do. You never would have caught our mothers kissing a grown man other than their husbands, but the world has changed. Our mothers didn’t “pass the peace” in church either.

He didn’t let go of the kiss. In fact, he practically devoured me. Turns out, he’d been holding back up until now, but not any more. That’s when I found out what he had to offer: patience and attention to detail. We moved to the bed, and after hours of stroking, fondling, cuddling, humping, we fell back into a mess of bedclothes, exhausted.

“Hey babe,” George said. “Better luck next time.”

Next time?

Thus began our long afternoons of wine and sex, what I call our “stolen afternoons.” George likes that phrase. Stealing time is Newtonian, he says, and we must do all we can for physical science. I think he’s just attracted by theft.

It’s a good thing I work for a nonprofit. Since my monthly take-home is a pittance, my boss is generous about personal days. The sad truth is that I’m in no danger of losing my job from absenteeism. My afternoons with George are rarer than hot days in January. He has many demands on his time, and long spells when he’s too sick to leave the house. Meanwhile my fascinating life grinds along, moving me ever closer toward becoming a desiccated, sherry-sipping, elderly spinster whom nobody will notice has passed until the neighbors smell a stink. As for my theory of leaving love to chance, I realized what the tide had brought in. George.

Six months ago, in a moment of clarity, I signed up for Match.com. It was time to find an available man.

My first Internet date, Crackerjack, wanted to take me out to the ballgame. I agreed to incarcerate myself with a total stranger in Yankee Stadium to witness the most boring sport on earth. I prefer turtle races.

Cracker Jack was no Prince Charming, and his natural endowments were not enhanced by a sweatshirt and, I gasp to recall, sweatPANTS. Surely a sartorial choice more appropriate for the gym than a date with Cunning Vixen. We sat perilously close to home plate, in seats that he assured me were unobtainable without his connections. He attempted to ply me with buckets of beer and stale peanuts in the shell. By the end of the first inning, I’d lost track of the gallons of beer Jack had consumed. But peanut shards were spilling from his mouth every time he rose to roar abuse at the umpire.

I determined that future dates would take place in establishments civilized enough to serve Wild Turkey.

By my second date I’d mastered the interview technique—in a Starbucks not in your neighborhood, cell phone timed to go off ten minutes into your latte, so that you can leave on an emergency. You’ve already heard of some who didn’t pass. I mentioned to George that I’d started Internet dating. He told me he understood, that I needed something he couldn’t offer. Then he invited me on a Florida getaway. Just him and me, out from under the watchful eyes. I said yes.

I stepped off the plane in Miami-Dade, and looked around. He stood out in the crowd, his baseball cap turned backward, an eager curl on his lips. After a year of stolen afternoons, three whole days with George would be proof of the pudding. He looked easy as blueberry pie warming on a shelf.

George, I found, is the worst licensed driver in America. We veered from lane to lane in the rental car while he made calls on his cell and sang along with the radio. We made it alive across the Macarthur Causeway and checked into a hotel where light bulbs were burnt out, the closet had no hangers, and the shower stall leaked. Pure South Beach chic. It was dinnertime. George said, “Honey, you don’t feel like goin out do you? How about pizza.”

Already giddy from palm trees in February around a kidney-shaped pool in turquoise and pink, the sight of George sprawled on that big double bed made staying in seem just fine. He picked up the phone to call room service and asked if they had Verve Cliquot. “Champagne goes great with pepperoni,” he said.

George was even more of a kick in large doses than he had been in the tiny rations I’d had until then. Next morning, lying on a beach chair, baking in the eye of the sun, we talked as we always do, parsing the universe and the insanity of our lives. The scent of coconut oil, the sigh of surf, minutes elongating into eternity, feeling the magnetic pull of his body, I thought, shit! I’m in heaven.

Day two, it rained. Downpours are good for reality. I was hauled back from the brink of the love abyss by the wet fingers of Alligator Alley. We went shopping for a retirement home. Playing at buying real estate, we chatted up a broker at a planned community on Florida’s west coast, leaving wet footprints all over floors of model homes.

“Your wife will love this kitchen opening on the lanai,” the broker gushed.

“Not my wife,” George corrected her. “A friend.”

Not even girlfriend. I realized that George was setting up for those golden years we wouldn’t be spending together. I knew in a flash, George still loved his wife. When I got back from Miami, I entered a period of rational behavior tinged by sadness. Cunning Vixen became a true disciple of Match.com. After a string of unsuitables, I met Learned Hand.

Not his real name of course. Like all who must choose an alias, he’d picked one that reflected what he considered his sexy side: a nineteenth century New England judge. He was a corporate lawyer. Here was a man who could earn a living. He had a devilishly cute face and twinkling blue eyes. I decided to give old Learned a shake.

We dated throughout the spring. Trips to museums, walks in the park, Off-Broadway plays, boat trips and excursions through the data of our lives. He’d married once, long ago, several untortured relationships since then, no children. His career was as smooth as his life. I was hopeful. One moonlit evening in an outdoor restaurant after several martinis Learned sidled his chair next to mine and kissed me in public.

“What do you say we fall in love?” he said, and kissed me some more. I wanted to feel sparks. Instead, I felt the averted eyes of a passing waitress and the other customers.

Later in the taxi, I knew I should invite Learned home. I wasn’t going to find a better man. I’m sure you’ll agree. But found myself telling him I had to get up early. “Call me,” I said.

Gentleman that he was, he said, “Take your time.”

The next day, my phone rang. It was George. Back, after months of fleeting email salutations. There were reasons he’d been unavailable, tales of bad health and travail. I listened and steeled my heart; I was trying to break myself of a habit. He said, “Babe, I’m feeling good. How bout we meet like lovers do.”

Which meant crossing the Hudson by ferry in a light rain, wind whipping the water into whitecaps. George met me on the dock. We drove to a glass hotel rising like a watchtower out of the wasted expanse of the Meadowlands, not the sort of place that expects assignations at eleven on a weekday morning. The halls were littered with cleaning carts and vacuum hoses. Our room was on the twelfth floor, overlooking the Continental Airlines sports arena. Romantic. George flourished a big flat box he’d been hiding behind his back. “A gift—a little something for you to wear,” he said. “Don’t worry though. I’m not a Fredricks of Hollywood guy.”

I’ll confess, he made me nervous. He always does. I opened the box like it might explode. Men’s white boxers and white sleeveless undershirt. I burst out laughing.

“Perfect,” I said.

“I never bought garments for a woman to have sex in before,” he said. “Try them on.”

I went into the bathroom to change. They fit just right. When I came out, George was lounging in the easy chair, dialing. He’d stripped from the waist down. “I’m starved,” he said. “What do you want?”

I looked over his shoulder at the menu and pointed to the shrimp cocktail as he ordered a Western omelet. He had just opened a bottle of champagne when a knock on the door announced room service. He walked to the door, his long white hippy shirt just barely covering his dangling penis. I blushed for the poor fellow who handed George the silver covered tray.

Much later, when the champagne glasses were empty, George took that sweet serious tone he uses sometimes and said, “Lillian, I have something to say to you.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” I cautioned.

“Remember, for me the truth is often optional. But I’ll never lie to you.”

Ever since Alligator Ally there were three words I’d kept locked up. My guard must have slipped, because I was saying, “I love you, George.” Right there in the presence of the Continental Airlines sports arena. We had exchanged vows.

I told Learned Hand goodbye.

Since that day, three months ago, I haven’t seen George, but we email. He’s given up on treatment, resigned himself to a lifetime of deadly disease. He’s cocky. I’ve lived with this virus thirty years, he says, I’ll go thirty more. I see through his cracks, the spaces between his molecules where doubt might creep in. I know his lies and bombast, his tender patience, his unreasonable hope. I don’t know if it’s what I live for, or if I can live without it.

All day he’s been calling, not the usual George. As though he’s afraid I won’t show up tomorrow on the ferry dock. As I type this, that little postage stamp is jumping up and down at the bottom of my desktop, telling me I’ve got mail. I’ll just take a peak and pass along to you my latest message from Match.com.

“Dear Cunning Vixen, Your smiling face has flashed across my screen, shining like the morning star. I’m a former astronaut, current engineering consultant to NASA, major player in a philanthropic organization that helps the homeless, and budding amateur painter—amazingly good, I am told. Grandpa Moses? I work out regularly and have the body (and, ahem, libido) of a 30-year-old. I believe we were fated to meet. Signed, Fly Me To The Moon.”

What would you do?

I hit delete.

DEBORAH CLEARMAN was born in North Carolina and grew up on a tobacco farm in Southern Maryland. Her work has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Connecticut Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, The Adirondack Review, and others, and has been selected as a Glimmer Train award finalist. Her novel Todos Santos is available from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in New York City and Guatemala.