I had an idea growing up of what love should look like.
Love was the sweet, tied-up endings of teenage romance novels. It was the throbbing, raw lyrics of emo band Dashboard Confessional.
My hopes are so high / That your kiss might kill me. / So won't you kill me / So I die happy …
Even when it was bad, it was good, because it's better to have loved and lost than to have not loved at all.
So imagine my surprise when I emerged into the Adult World still clinging to those ideals with an optimism unshaken during that magical time called college, where there are literally thousands of like-minded people in your age range to choose from.
I'm only 24, but I'm discovering that dating is truly awful. Even when it's bad, well, it's just bad, because it was worse to have gone on that Tinder date than to have stayed in bed with Netflix and your cat.
I've used Tinder and Bumble and OkCupid. I've tried new activities and gone to bars and restaurants hoping to meet people outside my crowd. It got so bad that I accepted an offer from my out-of-town grandmother to set me up with her church choirmate's grandson. "He's a nice guy and needs to meet a nice girl," she wrote me using her endearing grandmotherly text abbreviations. "Asked if she cud send him UR phone no. Wat do u say?"
I had nothing — literally, nothing — to lose. "Sure, why not?"
Sounds like the beginning of a Hallmark movie, right? But even with the help of two grandmothers, I never heard from him.
I needed some advice.
• • •
First, I turned interviews with a couple of academics into therapy sessions.
Historian Gary Mormino schooled me on technology's impact on dating. During the early 20th century, courtship was closely monitored by family members and confined by class and religion, making for a small pool of potential partners. With the invention of the car, couples had the freedom to ditch overbearing relatives, prompting ministers to refer to the car as "the devil's tool."
I'd pay to hear what they'd say now about the dating apps that allow me to virtually meet men from my sofa.
There was a time I thought I was above online dating, that I was surely charming enough to meet someone in person.
That ego dissolved after I left my number on the receipt for a bartender I had developed a crush on. "From the girl with the short hair," I signed it, a move that the three beers swirling in my head told me would be irresistible. He called a week later, sending me into a palm-sweating panic as I prepared for him to ask me out. Instead he told me I had won a prize in a raffle I had entered at the bar a few weeks prior.
So I did what any downtrodden modern romantic would do: I downloaded Tinder while watching Say Yes to the Dress and drinking wine with a friend.
It's a rush, flipping through dozens of photos of potential partners, one I revisited when I moved to St. Petersburg in September 2015 to start my career. I was even more excited to find a selection of mostly well-dressed graduates of prestigious schools. I swiped right on probably half a dozen guys before I noticed they all had New York City locations.
I checked my settings and discovered my location was listed as New York, the result of a residency there for a summer internship. A switch to Tampa Bay unleashed a stream of shirtless mirror selfies and guys listed as "entrepreneurs."
I consulted sociologist Arielle Kuperberg of the University of North Carolina, who told me that in an ideal dating city, there is a surplus of people in the 20 to 35 age range, which St. Petersburg is hurting for. Tampa fares a little better, which would maybe make the drive over the bay worth it. And, #FloridaProblems: This state in general is a mobile society with a large population of elderly people, Mormino said. "There are all sorts of rumors about the Villages and pinup calendars of guys over 75," he said. "You might think about that for your next project."
Maybe then I'll meet my match.
• • •
My heart is yours to fill or burst / to break or bury/ or wear as jewelry / Whichever you prefer …
No matter how bad it gets, I still scream-sing Dashboard Confessional's Hands Down in the privacy of my car. It's a swelling heart explosion about the best date ever. And in that moment, I feel giddy.
I'd consulted a historian, a sociologist. I'd let my own grandmother pimp me out. Why not just spill my guts to Dashboard's dreamy frontman, Chris Carrabba?
I was in luck. The band is stopping at the Ritz Ybor on Feb. 16 as part of a nationwide tour. Maybe I could use his desire for preshow publicity as an excuse to get him on the phone.
He is, after all, a fellow Floridian: high school in Boca Raton, undergrad at Florida Atlantic University, rock roots in Broward County-born bands like Further Seems Forever and New Found Glory. He has said he writes more songs when he's here.
So one afternoon after taking my cat to the vet (all that Netflix has rendered poor Rose officially obese), I dialed the number his publicist had emailed me and felt the sweat starting to pool in my pits.
A voice answered that was less deep than I imagined, less gruff.
"Hi, is this Chris?"
Once I started talking, it was easy. Carrabba listened as I told him his songs showed the teenage me what love and heartbreak should feel like but that I'm still yearning for those feelings a decade later, and please, sir, what advice do you have?
He took a minute.
"I would say, allow yourself to feel as much as you can, good or bad, in every relationship that you're in," he said, "and when the right, real love finds its way to you, you'll be well-practiced."
(Cue me almost falling out of my chair at the lyricism of this advice.)
My friend who has had problems similar to mine refers to this dating climate as a "competition to see who cares less." I'm not good at that game. Carrabba didn't offer a concrete how-to guide to help me find love, but he gave me what his songs have given me since eighth grade, validation that it's okay to feel.
Maybe this bout of mild heartbreak is leading up to something. Maybe it's all one big learning experience. I guess I'm going to celebrate the victories and wallow in the sorrows and hope for the best. Or, in Carrabba's far more eloquent words:
"You've only got one life, for Christ's sake. Let yourself feel the whole thing."
Contact Kathryn Varn at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157. Follow @kathrynvarn.