My dating profile picture, a blurry, distant figure in a desert landscape, suggested a great deal about my ambivalence: I wanted, and I didn’t want. At 47, divorced for nearly two decades and with my daughters grown, I cherished my solitude, but sometimes when I heard the mice rustling in the attic, I thought of the newspaper story I had read about a man not far from where I lived who had been found dead in his flat, partly eaten by rats.
Sometimes I tired of my own company; occasionally I was lonely. I had forgotten what it felt like to touch someone or to be touched. When I held my own hand in the dark to remind myself, my hand seemed small and cool, as if it belonged to someone else.
I wanted connection, but I didn’t want what it always seemed to cost: the men who turned me into the sole focus of their lives (“You’re the only thing worth living for”); the men who told me what I wanted and didn’t want rather than what they wanted or didn’t want; the men whose expression of concern for my safety revealed itself to be a mask for control and coercion — whose words moved from “You shouldn’t” to “You can’t” as they stood blocking the door, preventing me from leaving.
If the profile picture I chose suggested my ambivalence, then the fact that I chose Edinburgh for my location drove it home. Edinburgh lies two national borders and a seven-hour train journey from where I live in a rural part of Wales.
In reality, trying out online dating at a distance of 350 miles seemed a good deal safer than trying it out near home. Doing so could let me test the water without really taking a risk. And even if online dating was only a modern version of my widowed aunt matchmaking at an 18th-century barn-dance or ball, it seemed so artificial, so antithetical to the spontaneity and accident that creates romance, that I thought it would be safe.
There were the usual suspects who ignored my photo and what it said about my ambivalence. The plump accountant who told me I was beautiful despite not knowing what I looked like. The purported U.S. marine in Iraq who used all caps and would no doubt be sending some scammer message about needing me to transfer money. A slightly alarming New York banker wanted to meet me, had to meet me, would get on a plane to come meet me the minute I replied.
I looked at the profile of a man at sea; he seemed safely distant. And there was a climber with a kind face who was good at chopping wood. He lived in Carlisle, a five-hour drive away.
I am fair with an ax but terrified of heights, so he seemed safe too. I didn’t answer the accountant or the marine or the banker, and the man at sea didn’t reply to me, but the climber did. Soon we were writing to each other regularly across the shortening days of early autumn.
Our correspondence reminded me of having a pen-pal: We told each other little details of our day-to-day lives, of things we had seen or done, but we never mentioned meeting. I asked him about the climbing, but I really didn’t want to know. I experience vertigo at the top of a flight of stairs, and the pictures of him inching along a crag above a 100-foot drop gave me palpitations. Even if we ever were to meet, I knew we wouldn’t get beyond that first coffee in a café, or — his preference — a pint of real ale in a pub.
Ten months later, I’m stepping up to the foot of a crag. Everything has left my mind but fear. In my peripheral vision: a void, a nightmare of nothingness. Beneath me, a black slab descends steeply to a limpet-crusted causeway of broken columns.
I tamp down the fear, but halfway up this sea-stack off the coast of Mull, I lose control of it and get stuck. My feet are wedged into a vertical crack. There’s a foothold to my left, a bit higher up, but my left foot is pinned beneath my right, and I can’t move it. I can’t move my right foot either: there’s nowhere else to place it. I can’t shift my weight so that I might free my left foot. And I can’t step back down, because that way is the void, the nothingness.
I am stuck, and I cannot see a way that I can ever move. My brain toys with me, tells me it’s insoluble. Even supposing my right foot finds a foothold beneath me, where can I put my left foot but back in this crack? My feet do a little dance in the crack but only end up wedged in more tightly.
“I’ve got you,” he calls down, from far above, out of sight. “You’re safe.”
He has me secured by a rope, but his words just sound like meaningless noise. My heart races; I can’t breathe. I have only the jangled sense of catastrophe.
He takes in the rope a little, so that I can feel he’s there at the other end, holding me, but I am frozen, panicking. My hands grip the rock convulsively, and my left leg begins to cramp.
Somehow, though, remembering being in labor, I get my breathing under control. My heart slows from its mad race to a fast, painful pounding. I tell the disembodied voice above me to shut up, to stop making noise. I swear out loud that if I get out of this I will never, ever do it again. I jiggle my feet, lodging my right foot a little higher in the crack, and manage to slip my left foot out from under it. Then I jam it in somehow, scrabbling and slipping, as I bring my right foot back down and in under the left.
My left foot is free to move, but now I have to lunge upward to get it onto the foothold to the left, and that means letting go of what I’m gripping so tightly. I don’t know what I’ll be able to grab hold of higher up when I lunge. I can’t let go, and I know I have to let go to be able to move on, and this seems both a profound truth and at the same time the most trite and redundant thought I’ve ever had.
“This isn’t some personal growth seminar,” I think, enraged at myself. “This is a disaster.” And then, because in the end I have to, though I might have nothing to hold onto, I launch myself into the unknown.
Miraculously, my left hand finds a great lumpy protrusion, and then there’s a hold for my right, and suddenly everything is possible. The rest has its own logic, almost as though the handholds and footholds appear as I need them, a known thing before it’s known. And with a kind of exquisite economy, I’m lifting myself from one hold to the next, and I am at the lip, and at the top, and there he is, the man who all along has been keeping me safe, whose voice has been carrying me, even though I told him to shut up, while I took the time to find my way and keep going.
“Trust,” I say, gabbling in the release of endorphins, in a delirium, lying on my back on the wide, flat rock. “Trust. It’s all about trust.”
I watch him, this man who is not afraid of being afraid, who does not need to keep me from taking risks — I watch him coiling the rope with which he kept me safe, shaking his head resignedly over the slimy puddle of guano he landed it in, and I realize that, remarkably, he trusted me too. He placed his trust in me to keep him safe as he climbed first, even though I hardly knew what I was doing.
“Where next?” I say, euphoric at having overcome fear, and now he’s looking at me with something like pride and delight in my delight, and warm affection, and deep recognition of me that has nothing to do with words. And I think, “So this is what love is.”