At 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, I strode through the East Village wearing an eye patch, a red bandana, a big gold hoop, and a skull ring. A few gold doubloons burned a hole in my pocket. I reviewed jokes:
What’s a pirate’s favorite kind of sock? Aaaaaaargyle.
Have you seen the new pirate movie? It’s rated aaaaaaaarrrr.
How much does it cost for a pirate to get his ears pierced? A buccaneer.
I could find a pirate opening in any conversation. Flowers? Gaaaaardinias. Breakfast foods? Pop Taaaaarts. Discount clothing store? Kmaaaaaart.
That afternoon, I’d practiced being completely straight-faced, as though being a pirate on an Internet date was the most natural thing in the world.
The bar teemed with people, and the hipster-dim lighting left me squinting with my single eye in an attempt to recognize Jason. When we had talked earlier that afternoon to confirm the details, he asked how we would recognize each other. “Oh, you’ll recognize me, don’t worry,” I’d said. Now it occurred to me that he might disappear into the crowd to avoid meeting me.
I stood around awkwardly while people glanced at me and chucked. I got a few high-fives and a couple ahoys. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder: “You must be Joelle.”
“That I yam,” I said, shaking his hand.
He gestured to a table and assessed me with a bemused half-smile. I sat down and politely smiled back, as though nothing about the situation might be even slightly confounding. I regretted not planting a friend in the bar to come along and complain about how high slip prices were these days, and my eye patch — was it Ralph Lauren?
Finally, he said, “So … you like pirates?”
I nodded solemnly. “My father was a pirate, and my grandfather before him.”
“Aren’t you from Michigan?” He managed to act as though this was a normal first conversation.
“The Great Lakes are really big — we practically own them. Lake Superior is the best for seafaring.” It was easier than I’d thought. “Urban pirates are the big thing now, so here I am,” I said.
He looked at me. Afraid that he would demand an end to my shenanigans, I filled the silence with a joke: “A pirate walks into a bar with a big steering wheel down his pants. The bartender says, ‘Why do you have a big steering wheel down your pants?’ and the pirate says, ‘Aaaarrrr, it’s drivin’ me nuts!’ ” I underscored the punch line with an arm swing. He laughed for longer than he had to.
When the waitress came, he ordered a pitcher of lager and I asked her for a side of lime. A few minutes later, she brought a lime cut into slices, and while chatting about scurvy, I ate it piece by piece, ripping the sour flesh off the rind. He pointed out a little chunk of lime on my chin and told me I didn’t look rickety at all.
He asked me about pirate fetishism and I confirmed the existence of a lurid scene similar to the one for ninjas, Vikings, and shepherds. We discussed the stigmas and prejudices pirates face every day. He asked what it was like being confined to a cubicle instead of sailing the wide open sea. I told him that my coworkers looked at me funny and never came over to my shanty after work. Dropping my voice to a whisper, I mentioned that my ship had been repossessed recently.
“You mean it was pirated?” he said.
“More like un-pirated,” I replied. I told him piracy meant stealing, and not all pirates did that. What I practiced was called "piratism", and everything I did was on the up and up.
We talked about the city, art, music, beer — the things people and pirates love equally. After a couple hours, my eye watered and my head itched under the bandana, so I asked if he would mind if I took them off.
“It wouldn’t make you any less of a pirate,” he said, which was strangely comforting. I laid the accessories on the table and looked at him for the first time with two eyes. A few minutes later he said, “You’re not really a pirate, are you?”
I explained that I felt weird about being the online dating guinea pig of my social circle (this was some time ago), that I wanted a memorable first foray into that world. I thanked him for being such a good sport. But I didn’t come completely clean about what had compelled me to dress like a pirate that night. He seemed to think I was spirited and unselfconscious, but I didn’t tell him that making a spectacle of myself was infinitely easier than wearing my real face.
The idea had occurred to me at lunch two days earlier. As I talked to friends about the date, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. “I’m just going to meet this guy from the Internet?” I said more than once. Then, “I should do something weird. You know … dress up like a pirate or something.” I don’t know where the idea came from, but as soon as I said it, I knew I would do it.
That’s when I let myself get invested in the date, which helped me avoid thinking about whether it would be successful otherwise. The pressure wasn’t and hadn’t ever really been on me. I’d made meeting someone from an online dating site even more uncomfortable for him by making him an unwitting actor in my little performance. He’d gone in double-blind, forced to react to a particularly huge gap between expectation and reality. I’d stacked the deck so heavily in my favor that if anyone felt like a schmuck afterward, it wouldn’t be me, despite how silly I looked.
My dating history in New York City had been a chronicle of sad, unfunny, and perplexing misadventures, and I was done — or so I had told myself. So why had I agreed to try online dating? I couldn’t chalk up my agreeing to go on the date to simple curiosity or being nominated by friends. Yet there I was, agreeing to go on a date with someone I’d chosen after a rigorous profile-screening period during which I eliminated anyone who seemed creepy, superficial, sex-crazed, boring, ultra-religious, ultra-conservative, unintelligent, or ungrammatical. If this were really just for kicks or just a social experiment, why had I employed such scrutiny?
Somewhere beneath the pirate getup, I was serious about the date. I’d dated people I’d known far less about — people I met at bars and parties, people I met when I was drunk, people whose last names I never learned. After a couple weeks of messaging, I knew that Lichtenstein was Jason’s favorite country, even though he’d never been there. I knew what museums, books, and music he liked, what he sculpted for his thesis project. I knew his writing style, his penchant for semicolons. The date wasn’t a joke, which was exactly why I turned it into one.
I don’t know anyone immune to fear of rejection, but I thought I was too logical and self-assured to feel that way. Compared to everything else, rejection was insignificant, and I’d lived through much worse — I moved to NYC on September 8, 2001, without a job, an apartment, or any friends, and I’d survived. I pretended that the resulting confidence was the reason I went on a date dressed as a pirate, but the pirate costume was my bulletproof vest. If the date didn’t go well, it would be because of the pirate garb, not because of me. I couldn’t be rejected if I didn’t really show up.
I wish I could say Jason and I got together, or even that we hooked up, but we didn’t. I didn’t feel chemistry with him, but I did feel kinship, especially because of the grace with which he accepted the scenario. There was nowhere I’d rather be than sitting in that bar, having just come out as not really a pirate to someone I had met online.
Toward the end of the evening, he reached over and took the bandana and patch. He put them on and performed the requisite aaaarrring and ahoying. As I looked at him in my pirate gear, I thought about what it would have been like if he had come to the bar dressed as a pirate. I’d have put a hand on his shoulder and bought him a beer. Then maybe, if the conversation was quick enough and the jokes good enough, we’d get on to the business of showing our true faces.