When I sat on Santa's lap, I had completely forgotten I was supposed to tell him what I wanted as a present.
“Surely, there must be something,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I looked at the line of wailing five-year-olds glaring at me to hurry up so they could get their turn.
“Nothing?” Santa said.
I thought back to my ex and how we’d taken a picture with this same Santa last year. How happy we’d been.
“A boyfriend,” I blurted out.
“I don’t think that’ll be tough,” he said as I scooted off his lap and Mrs. Claus handed me a candy cane and the Polaroid picture of me with her holiday husband.
I watched it develop, thinking about how relationships evolve the same way. Someone who’s a stranger one day suddenly appears and becomes more and, next thing you know, you’re in love.
I liked Santa’s optimism, but he had Mrs. Claus -- he didn’t know dating in Los Angeles.
Plus, did Christmas wishes really come true when your parents were no longer masquerading as Santa, not to mention matchmakers?
In the spring, my boyfriend and I had broken up. It happened suddenly, like a stop sign I didn’t see even though it was there all along. I felt like my heart had been run over in the street in a hit-and-run and there was nothing anyone could do to save it. The driver got away.
The last thing I wanted to do was date again. Avoiding love was less painful than attempting it again.
For months, tears made new mosaic patterns on my couch as I hid from the world. Every time I saw couples -- on the street or at the grocery store -- my heart ripped apart even more, taunting me with what I once had. But, as time went on and I could bear going to Target, seeing a couple and not crying, I knew I was getting better.
Soon, not crying for one night turned into not crying for a week, then a month, then more months. I started to feel like my happy self again.
Friends suggested I date. It seemed most had met their significant others online: Match, eHarmony, OkCupid and Tinder.
My knowledge of Tinder was hook-ups or easy sex, not relationships of substance; rather, of stripping.
“Just try it,” my friend Katie said. Months earlier, she’d met her boyfriend on it, “and not in a hook-up kind of way.” Now, they were madly in love.
I’d tried every site but Tinder, so I decided to conduct my own online dating focus group. The bonus was the app identifying mutual Facebook friends you had with a potential match, so it was like meeting a friend of a friend as you would at a party. Only, on your phone.
To weed guys out, the first sentence of my mini, seven-sentence profile said, “FYI, not looking for hook-ups.” I also made sure my photos were conversation-starters: me with the Chicago Cubs mascot, me drinking out of a coffee mug the size of a gallon of milk and me on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, pointing at a restaurant where I’d waitressed during high school.
Surprisingly, I received no salacious, sexual messages, the kind Tinder often gets a bad rap for; instead, I matched with guys who seemed to have a lot in common with me, preferring bookstores over bars. If a guy’s messages piqued my interest, I’d have a couple exchanges with him, then move to email. If his emails were engaging, I’d move to a phone call.
As it turned out, I got the flu just as a few guys moved into the phone zone. A dating coach I once worked for, Evan Marc Katz, was a big advocate of the pre-date call, saying it’s like having a first date. If you and a guy couldn’t converse on the phone, how could you talk in person? Plus, with my fever and chills and being marooned at home, I had no other choice.
Once the flu left, it turned into a cough. If you want to know if a guy has no ulterior motives, he’ll meet you even when you’re sick, because who wants to kiss a coughing girl?
I was shocked at how normal the men were in person. All the pre-screening phone calls worked! I went from fearing I would like no matches to liking too many.
And one guy, Michael, stood out more than the others.
Our first phone call had been four hours long. (I know dating coaches shun an overly long call, in case there’s no in-person chemistry, but the call was fun and how much more Netflix could I watch?) Michael and I had many similarities. We both volunteered with homeless people, believed in God and went to church (the latter being a point of contention with my ex), wrote (fiction and non-fiction), had a few mutual friends, and I found out he’d been at a literary event I was supposed to attend a few months prior.
On our third date, Michael saw my picture with Santa. He wondered what I’d asked him for. I didn’t say. Like a birthday wish, I didn’t want to jinx it. Ironically, that picture had been taken just a couple hours before my first date with Michael.
My Christmas gift to myself was trying something new, Tinder, when I no longer had hope for dating or falling in love again. But Tinder -- and Santa -- have me believing otherwise.
A few dates later with Michael, we passed by a Santa. I swear he looked at us and winked.