It’s Saturday night and I have a date — a second date, in fact, with a handsome 42-year-old who’s taking me to see They Might Be Giants at First Avenue. I glance at my watch — show time is 8 p.m. and it’s already quarter to six. If I leave right now, I will just barely make it on time.
Here’s the thing: I live in Eau Claire, Wis. I’m about to drive nearly 90 miles for a date with a guy I have only met once. I know little more than his name (Matt) and occupation (lawyer).
I also know that the odds of us hitting it off are stratospherically higher than with any of Eau Claire’s eligible bachelors. And I’m willing to sacrifice time and gas money (thank God I drive a hybrid) in order to spend an evening with someone whose interests align at least somewhat with mine.
I’m not native to this part of the country. I was born in St. Louis, but I spent most of my adult life on the East Coast (five years in NYC, followed by four in Boston). Then I moved to Eau Claire (pop. 68,000) in 2013, and it was a shock to the system.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things I enjoy about Wisconsin — who wouldn’t like paying $450 for a one-bedroom apartment? But the culture took some getting used to.
I knew the men of the upper Midwest would be different from those back east, but I thought that might work in my favor. Wisconsin men were bound to be less neurotic and less metrosexual, right? Some of my East Coast boyfriends owned more hair product than I did.
So I felt optimistic the day I filled out my OKCupid profile, listing my favorite things: Russian literature, sushi, Etta James, pinot noir. Perhaps my soulmate was hiding in the cornfields of bucolic western Wisconsin.
As I began perusing profiles of single, straight men in my new zip code, some patterns quickly emerged. Not having children at my age (33) was something of a rarity. I had never dated a man with kids before, but this wasn’t a deal-breaker. I love kids and hope to have my own someday.
Most of the men had been married at least once. This was interesting but, again, not necessarily problematic — at least they aren’t afraid of commitment.
Sports fandom or even fanaticism was pretty much a given, as was outdoors enthusiasm. Camping, fishing and hunting appeared to be the activities for which most of these men sought companionship. Given my proclivity for urban creature comforts and fear of firearms, I figured it was time to test the wisdom of Paula Abdul and see if opposites really did attract.
The short answer is no. I went on a series of first-and-only dates with a string of nice guys with whom I had nothing in common. I started to feel like an alien — most of these guys had never lived outside of Wisconsin and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to.
I found myself downplaying my cosmopolitan background and feigning interest in fantasy football.
To be clear: None of these men treated me badly. Many were attractive and intelligent. But we usually parted ways after one drink and never saw each other again.
There was one relationship with a single dad that seemed promising — until I discovered he was cheating on me using Craigslist Casual Encounters. So much for my theory about the wholesome men of the rural Midwest. Heartbroken, I deactivated my OkCupid account and decided to accept my clichéd fate: the English professor who lives alone with her cat and watches a lot of BBC shows on Netflix.
This past April, while visiting Minneapolis for a writing conference, I ran into a friend from grad school who seemed more excited about cruising Tinder than attending any panels. Out of curiosity, I set up an account and started scrolling through pictures. I found myself frequently swiping right — so many of the men were cute and wrote clever things! The pool was much more diverse; there were young professionals of all races and backgrounds, and far fewer Green Bay Packers jerseys.
My heart sank as I realized Tinder is more for hook-ups — not the ideal matchmaker for a serial monogamist like me.
I also wondered: Why would a guy who lives in the Twin Cities, with no shortage of available women, have any interest in dating someone from Eau Claire?
Still, I made plans to meet one man who caught my eye — Matt described himself as a “shy extrovert.” Thanks to Tinder, I was able to glean some common interests (we both “liked” NPR on Facebook).
Before driving home from the conference, I had a lunch-that-extended-into-happy-hour-drinks with Matt. Five hours flew by; it was a great first date, and I didn’t want it to be our last. I could tell, however, he had reservations about making plans to see each other again if it meant driving to Wisconsin.
I assured him that wouldn’t be necessary. I was more than willing to come back to Minneapolis.
Matt invited me to see They Might Be Giants the very next weekend. We visited the Walker Art Center the weekend after. He eventually came to Eau Claire — first for a bluegrass festival, then again for Eaux Claires, and then just to see me.
It’s too early to make predictions about where the relationship is heading, but I am smitten — with Minneapolis. Every neighborhood Matt and I have explored has charmed me and I think it’s been fun for him to experience his city like a tourist, to see it with fresh eyes. When my teaching contract is up in 2017, I could easily see myself making a life there.
That’s why I don’t mind trekking 85 miles west every weekend — just off the highway is a city I hope to call home one day, and our love affair is just beginning.
Katie Vagnino is a poet, educator and writer currently based in Eau Claire, Wis., where she teaches creative writing. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York/Boston/Chicago, New York Magazine and Role Reboot as well as a number of literary journals. She can be reached via her website, www.katievagnino.com.