Self Portrait With iPhone

Newly single in her mid-50s, Pam Mandel swipes through dozens of selfies, including her own.

Pam Mandel | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,453 words)

The first thing I notice are the car selfies. So many of the profiles I see include car selfies. I overthink as I try to determine what this tells me.

I consider the following options:

I have a car. See how I have a car?

No one knows I’m doing this. My car is the only place I can get privacy in which to take a dating profile selfie.

I have no friends, no one to take my picture.

On Reddit and Quora, I learn that others have noticed this too. I find multiple threads asking my exact question. “What’s the deal with all the car selfies?”

Consensus is that the light is good inside your car — it’s even and diffused. You might be on your way to or from an important event, one that requires you to clean up, whatever that means for you. You look in the mirror, check your teeth, and think, “Hey, I look good.” Your phone is right there, in the dash-mounted bracket, perfect for a selfie.

Snap.

I consider taking “car selfie” off my list of disqualifying factors for selecting a mate. I mean date. For selecting a date.

***

I was in my early 30s the last time I was single. Now, I am in my mid-50s.

I was in remarkable physical shape in my 30s. I joined a mountaineering club, went on long bicycle rides, stayed up late. Now, I walk my dog a few miles a day, as much for me as for him, but I am softer in the middle, carrying an extra pound for every year I was married. I go to bed early.

The car selfies are ubiquitous, but so are the pictures with the car — or motorcycle or boat. ‘Look at my possessions!’ these photos say to me. ‘Look at how I own a car, motorcycle, or boat!’

I used to go to an office every day, taking the bus or carpooling with strangers who became friends. But I’ve been self-employed for a long time now. I shuffle down the hall to my office and put on my headphones for conference calls with people in Boston or Seattle, people I never see in person. Sometimes I turn on the video, but not often. I’ve been up since five — I am a morning person — but I have not bothered to get dressed. My once jet black hair is a cloud of salt and pepper chaos. No one needs to see that, plus, no one cares. I’m not on this conference call to make friends.

Before the Coronaverse, I’d go to an event or a party, something small; maybe I’d meet some new people, but probably not. If I did meet new people, they’d be so much more partnered, so much more parenting, so much more grown up than I am. They have created and launched completely new humans in the time I was trying to stay married. I live in one of those tech cities. I pay my bills working for tech economy clients. That’s who I meet. I’d meet people who have advanced to corner offices in the time I was avoiding a career; I focused instead on traveling and writing and making art. They have beautifully remodeled kitchens and a lot of vacation time. I have a 1946 house with its original kitchen and exactly no paid vacation days.

I consider adding “works in tech” as a dating disqualifier. Here is a guy who runs a tree service. One of his photos shows only his feet, looking down through the branches into a back yard far below. Here is a guy who is a general contractor. One of his photos shows the framing for a house he is building. Here is a commercial airline pilot. His picture was taken in the cockpit of a jet.

Is a cockpit selfie the same as a car selfie? I don’t know.

***

I choose my photos carefully. I am a plain woman with slightly uneven features. I have dark circles under my eyes, I have dark spots on my skin, sometimes I still get acne and it scars. I never wear makeup. When I say I am plain, I mean I am unadorned, save for my glasses. I am not unattractive and I think I am wearing my age well, but I am also a 55-year-old woman. I have those lines on my cheeks when I smile. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I notice my jawline is softer than it used to be. I notice a single eyebrow hair has wandered down to my chin and I feel embarrassed as I pluck it out.


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I post a photo of me with my dog. Me with my bicycle. A black and white of me first thing in the morning on my birthday; I’m wearing an ironic t-shirt. The internet tells me I need a full body shot, too, so I post one of those urban brick wall pictures. I’m wearing the jeans I think I look skinny in and a winter coat. The pictures are flattering without lying. I look like the me I see in the mirror on a good day. No one will meet me and complain that I do not look like my pictures.

I spend too much time working on my profile. I answer all the questions that aren’t about sex. No, racist jokes are not okay — what is the matter with you? No, creationism does not belong in a science classroom — are you some kind of theocrat? No, I don’t want to have kids and also, I am 55, so if you’re looking at me and you want to make babies you don’t understand human biology.

I pay for the account where you can see who likes you and nothing happens. “No one likes me,” I think. Or, they like me and they don’t message me. I languish in that wish list state where I have parked those boots I don’t need and can’t really afford. Sometimes I send a message first and I get nothing in return. It’s different than being ghosted; in this scenario, I am the ghost, never seen in the first place.

I cancel my account and try another site. For a few weeks, it feels like the floodgates have opened. A man moves me to his cart and then, sends me a message. I respond. I get a weird little dopamine hit and a fair bit of nausea. He asks me out and I agree to meet him for coffee. That same week, I sign a lot of papers with my divorce lawyer.

I can almost hear the gate of my more than 20 year relationship clang shut behind me.

***

I agree to this first date because it feels very low stakes. I am not physically attracted to this man, but I have got to get this initial anxiety behind me. I need to tear off the bandage. I approach the date from a purely tactical level. A task to be completed. Get an oil change, put the laundry away, complete first date in over 20 years. Check.

My expectations are aggressively low. I feel a twinge of guilt for using this guy to check a box, but it passes very quickly when he is late, and then, turns out to be awful. Perhaps I am being unfair, perhaps he is just wildly insecure and as a straight white man in today’s America, does not know how to act when placed under such blatant scrutiny.

He is older than his pictures, a bad play because while he’s not my type, he’s not a bad looking guy. He spends most of the conversation trying to impress me. It’s the trying that pains me; I feel like I’m watching someone learn to swim.

“Let’s move to the shallow end of the pool,” I think. Water splashes everywhere and I’m nervous he’ll drag me under, but he insists he’s fine. I’m deeply relieved when I must leave the café; I am meeting a friend for lunch. He accuses me of ditching, though he’s the one who was late. Then he asks me if I want to get together again.

I am utterly unprepared for this question. “Message me,” I say, and I bolt for my car, the car in which I have taken exactly zero selfies. I laugh most of the way to my lunch date, but later when I’m back home, I feel so very sad.

***

Men who have never met me tell me they are dying to kiss me. Men to whom I have given no indication that I am just looking to get laid offer me sex as an opening line. Men tell me things about themselves that are inappropriate for a first message — that they are submissive, that they are dominant, that they are in a committed relationship that is sexually unsatisfying. Men tell me that they are looking to add some spice to their marriage by inviting a third party into their bed.

In his introductory text to me — a straight woman — one straight man told me he “likes sex with women.”

“Why do you feel the need to tell me that?” I responded.

“It seems the women I meet here are not interested in sex,” he says.

Oh, honey, I think. They’re just not interested in sex with you.

Men tell me all kinds of things without writing a word, too. The car selfies are ubiquitous, but so are the pictures with the car — or motorcycle or boat. “Look at my possessions!” these photos say to me. “Look at how I own a car, motorcycle, or boat!”

Men have been to Paris or Bangkok or Machu Picchu and they have been to the gym. They have been skiing and to sports stadiums and backpacking and surfing. They want me to see their bodies (shirt off) but not their eyes (sunglasses on). They tell me how important their families are, and how they are amicably raising the kids with their ex, and then they post photos of themselves with their young children. I think, I bet your ex-wife will be thrilled to know your 10-year-old appears in your dating profile. Men imagine themselves in my kitchen where I am wearing an apron and my glasses and heels. (I never wear heels.) Men domesticate me or imply a dominance to my character before we have even exchanged a word. Men want to cook for me, and then they want to eat me with the same skill they applied to making pasta al vongole; they assure me they are very good at both.

I choose my photos carefully…I am not unattractive and I think I am wearing my age well, but I am also a 55-year-old woman. I have those lines on my cheeks when I smile.

One man, who seems like a genuinely nice guy in his profile, who writes quite sweetly about the joy he gets in raising his two small daughters, messages me to tell me he is not looking for a relationship, but he finds me exceptionally hot and would, should I be open to it, provide me with all kinds of sexual satisfaction.

“Why would you say this before we’ve even met?” I ask him. This is how I waste my time: asking men what they hell they are thinking. “I could smell like dirty laundry and ashtrays. There could be zero chemistry. This is our first communication. What the hell?”

“I just wanted to be up front,” he replies.

Pass.

Pass.

Pass.

***

For grins, I research what I call “the opposition.” I flip the gender search on my profile and scroll through the women. On one app, all the women fit on one page, compared to the pages and pages of men.

Women have car selfies too, a few, but “look at my car, boat, motorcycle” pictures are noticeably absent. “Look at my body” pictures are less frequent as well. Some of the women are openly trans, or openly dominative, or openly some other kink. Some of them are lesbians.

I am hopelessly heterosexual.

A lot of these women seem… awesome, honestly. Like women I would want to be friends with. I look at my profile settings to see if I can change my orientation to bi-envious.

Is bi-envious a thing?

***

Friends who know me well, family who love me, insist that it is his loss — the man I am divorcing is the one who is losing. I don’t know about that; it feels like everyone is losing, it’s just a question of who’s losing what, and when. I’ve already lost too many years to sadness; he is just catching up and inventorying his own losses.

When I can’t sleep, I pet the dog and listlessly scroll through profiles, feeling all the markings of my 55 years, looking for something — someone — to stop that feeling of loss. It’s bad for me, junk food for my psyche. I’m reminded how bad it is every time I feel that bump when there’s a match. In my head I understand that I am being manipulated to feel just this way. I know that coming out of a relationship takes time and I should probably resolve all the old stuff before embarking on anything new. I know I should turn off my phone and go back to sleep or get out of bed.

I cradle my phone and hope that the guy with the good hair sends a message committing to a date. He has an interesting job and knows how to write in complete sentences and hasn’t said one inappropriate thing…yet. He also can’t seem to commit to having one drink after work.

I am a 55 year old woman, so I come to my senses, though it takes longer than I know it should. “His loss,” I try to tell myself. Before Covid, I’d throw on some clothes and go to the gym where I would not meet anyone; we all wear headphones now, we walk around in our own audio bubbles, startled when the person boarding the machine next to us says hello. I’d look at myself in the mirror and try not to sigh too loudly. After my workout, when I’d glow with heat and endorphins, I’d get back in the car and I look at my reflection in the dark glass of my sleeping phone.

I never took a selfie.

***

Right before our state issued its stay at home order, I stopped seeing a guy I met on a dating app. I liked him, but he was wrong for me in many ways. On our first real date — a dinner date where I worried about what to wear — he told me I looked so much better in person. I think about this some mornings when I look in the mirror. My hair needs cutting; my skin is rough from stress-eating junk food.

I want so badly right now to be seen.

The morning light in my front room is very flattering.

Snap.

* * *

Pam Mandel lives in Seattle, Washington with a brown and white dog named Harley. Her travel memoir, The Same River Twice, comes out in November, 2020. Pre-order it here.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Barely There
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Whole 60
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol
The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People
We Are All We Have
Searching Sephora for an Antidote to Aging — and Grief
How I Got My Shrink Back
Molly and the Unicorn