by Eli McCann
Originally published at It Just Gets Stranger. Shared with permission. You can listen to Eli tell this story at February’s Stangerville Live using the player below. The story starts at the 18:41 mark.
Dating was not always as easy for me as it is for every single one of you.
My dating career started in the sixth grade when I started receiving secret admirer notes in my tote tray. They were very well written. One of them said “I like you, love you secret admirer.” Another said “I love you, love your secret admirer.” I don’t want to brag but there was even one that said “UR really cute, love your secret admirer.”
My childhood best friend Sam and I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to figure out who was leaving me these notes, but we never could get to the bottom of it. Not through sixth grade, or seventh grade, or eighth grade as these notes continued to pour in before finally stopping in the ninth grade.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered the identity of my secret admirer when one day Sam told me that he sometimes wrote me those notes when he was bored. And he was pretty bored a lot.
The most tragic thing about the secret admirer situation is there were a lot of years when I could have engaged in some self improvement but I didn’t bother because I figured there was someone out there who loved me the way I was.
My dating life didn’t really improve after the sixth grade. If they made a movie about my dating history, the film would create a completely new genre. Something of a mix between comedy and horror and occasionally “incest.”
Ok, incest only once and only “technically.” But incest is one of those things where “technically” is plenty.
That one happened in college when I started dating a young woman named Emily. On our third date we pulled out our family trees, as one usually does on a third date, and found out that our lines connected on the second page of the 12-page foldout.
Second cousins once removed, as I recall. Frankly, considering the size of my extended family and the amount of polygamy in my history it was a miracle that she wasn’t my mother or sibling.
I had a friend at that time who told me I was doing the dating thing backwards. “You’re supposed to find out whether you’re related before you start dating someone. Not after.” He told me.
Emily and I ended the relationship that very night, which was fine as it was never going to work out anyway because Emily was a vegan.
Also, because Emily was a woman.
But mostly because Emily was a vegan.
I eventually stopped trying to date vegans and then even more eventually women.
It was around that time that I learned about a little thing called Tinder.
Jolyn actually introduced me to it. “It’s socially acceptable,” she told me. “Even non-murderers date through the internet now.”
Despite that letdown, I downloaded the app, and the next thing I knew, I started my illustrious career of going on dates with men who pretended to all of their friends that they weren’t going on dates with men.
I went on dates here and there and oh who am I kidding this became an unhealthy Pokémon obsession of trying to catch them all; I literally went on over 200 dates one year. My record was 7 in one day. I viewed Tinder as a way to meet people and make friends, which was important in this new gay world I was entering unarmed. With that philosophy, I ended up meeting nearly everyone in the state of Utah. I’ve actually been on tinder dates with all but two of you.
Once again friends tried telling me I was doing the dating thing backwards. You’re supposed to filter people out and then go on dates with the ones you like, not go on dates with everyone and then filter people out.
Most of the Tinder dates were fine, but some were odd. Like the guy who was a professional dog walker and invited me to take 7 dogs on a walk with him for our first and only date where we spent the entire one hour having a screaming fight about child abuse, a topic about which I didn’t know there could be two sides in polite society. That was odd enough, but the strangeness of the walk was eclipsed by the moment when he told me he would like to see me again as I was climbing into my car only five minutes after he called me a “stupid bastard.”
Then there was this time a guy brought four friends to our coffee date and had them sit at the table next to us and watch so they could give him feedback after. This reminded me of a previous experience from college where I went on 7 dates with the same woman, half of these at her request, and she brought her sister to every one. I lost interest after the second date, but just kept going because I was so curious to see how this would all turn out. It eventually ended with the sister calling me to break up because I wasn’t religious enough, which is an odd thing for a person who was spending three hours every Sunday at church to hear.
The point is, Tinder was getting exhausting. I just wanted to find someone who wasn’t weird. Just one person who was not incredibly weird. I did not have high standards. This isn’t a case of some mediocre white guy being too picky. Not weird. That was it.
I was getting fatigued with the tinder roller coaster when one Saturday evening in 2015 I matched with a very odd person named Skylar.
Skylar had an entirely different approach to Tinder. I knew this from reading his profile, which had only one line of text: “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to be America’s Next Top Model.”
My standards for a companion were pretty low by this point, so I sent him a message: “Shalom,” because I’ve always felt like I deserved a bar-mitzvah.
Typically tinder conversations, in my experience, were nothing more than proof that nearly everyone in America is functionally illiterate, so I had learned to have pretty low expectations in these text exchanges. You can imagine, then, my utter delight when he responded to my Hebrew salutation by saying “with a greeting like that, how can I Passover you?”
He was funny, and we chatted for a while, eventually moving to the phone the next day. I quickly learned that he lived in Wisconsin and that he came up on my Tinder only because he had been on a one-hour layover in the Salt Lake airport the day before. I was not shocked to find out he didn’t live anywhere near Salt Lake City since I had already met every gay here and was on my third or fourth round of tinder dates with all 500 of them.
I’m not sure I had ever met anyone who was more fun to talk to. But we lived nowhere near one another so I assumed we would never actually meet in person and I figured we would just spend the rest of our lives writing letters and talking on the phone, like those women from Beaches. I’m Bette Midler, obviously.
Then one day Skylar called me up with a proposition. He asked me if I would be his date to a wedding in the most romantic city in the world. Truly the Paris of America. Cleveland, Ohio.
I think I screamed “no” before he even finished the question. If my momma taught me anything, it was to never fly to Cleveland, Ohio, to meet a gay man who found me on the Internet. But then I remembered that Jolyn had promised me that even non-murderers were dating online now and since her advice was more recent I figured it trumped my mom’s.
I didn’t want other people to know that I was going to Ohio to meet a potential suitor because I thought that made me sound crazy, so instead I found a work conference happening in Cleveland the same week as the wedding, signed up for the conference, and truthfully told everyone in a voice louder than necessary that this was WORK trip.
A few weeks later, I boarded a redeye jet headed east.
My work conference caused me to arrive in Cleveland a couple of days before Skylar, and because the conference was only a few hours, I had some time to kill.
My friend Emily gave me a ride to the airport, informing me on the way that Cleveland was right next to a little place some of you know called Kirtland, Ohio.
A little thing you should know: There are not words in the English language to adequately describe my undying love and admiration for the Mormon pioneers. The wagons; the walking; the doilies; the drama. They have it all.
Most people who know me are aware of my alarming enthusiasm for Pioneer Day, the most important holiday on the Utah calendar. This love is sincere, as is my weepy performance of the state song, Utah! This is the Place! every time I sing it, which is often.
I also love visiting any old church of any kind anywhere in the world, and I will not pass up an opportunity to do so.
Kirtland, Ohio, was a Mormon pioneer town, and having never been there, I immediately boarded my rental car from the airport and drove it straight to town center. I didn’t even go check into my hotel first. I literally got teary-eyed when I saw the welcome to Kirtland sign.
I planned to tour it all. The old Mormon temple now turned museum and owned by a different church, pioneer village, the local eateries, you name it!
The only problem was this was a Thursday morning at 9:00 AM, and Kirtland, Ohio, looked like it.
And so, when I walked into the nearly abandoned museum visitor’s center, I was greeted by a startled 100-year-old man with a long white beard, tiny glasses, and probably a magical phoenix in the back room. This man, Dumbledore, told me that they didn’t usually have visitors on weekday mornings and that this was my lucky day because he had time to give me an exclusive extended tour.
I was too excited that I was suddenly granted VIP status to consider how incredibly awkward the next NINETY MINUTES were about to be.
Dumbledore guided me from room to room of the old temple where he gave me individualized 30-minute history lessons while maintaining direct eye contact without ever blinking. He also stood with his face only one foot from mine.
He told me about the architecture, about notable guests to the temple, about the temple history, etc. He even told me some things that they don’t tell on every tour FOR EXAMPLE: did you know that not all of the furniture in that building is original; some of the pieces are replicas they had made for purposes of furnishing the museum.
There was no way for me to escape this. I couldn’t slip out at some point because A) Dumbledore had locked the doors behind us when we entered the building, and B) I wasn’t kidding about the direct eye contact thing. He never turned his back to me once.
Nearing the end of the ninety minutes, during which I learned every fact anyone has ever wondered about the Kirtland temple, Dumbledore asked me if I played any musical instruments. We were descending the stairs into the main chapel of the temple when he asked me this question that I assumed was nothing more than small talk.
Some of you may know how the Kirtland temple tour ends. I did not know. I was totally unaware that it usually concludes with the guide finding out whether anyone on the tour plays the piano so the group can gather around the chapel’s piano and belt a rousing round of a classic Mormon hymn “The Spirit of God.”
I didn’t know that.
Had known that, I probably wouldn’t have told Dumbledore that I “dabbled a little in the piano.”
But the next thing I knew, I found myself playing that song while Dumbledore scream-sang it, one hand resting on the piano, foot atapping, and openly weeping down his long, white beard.
In the Kirtland temple. On a Thursday morning. At 11:30.
Sometime during the second verse or third or seventeenth verse–it’s a very long song–it suddenly occurred to me that while I had done a lot of things because of Tinder, this was definitely the weirdest.
Once I escaped the temple, I made my way down to pioneer village where I was cornered by two young female missionaries who strong-armed me into taking a personalized one-on-two tour. It was like everyone in this town was so desperate for company that they didn’t know how to take no for an answer.
I was guided through a number of log cabins, and stores, and something that I think functioned as a dentist’s office. After about thirty minutes, they started leading me into a saw mill, and I’m not proud of this, but with their backs turned to me, and while one of them was still mid-sentence, I turned and sprinted out of pioneer village.
The next day Skylar arrived in Cleveland.
I was exceptionally nervous to finally meet this probably-not-a-murderer, and suddenly worried that we may have nothing to talk about.
Skylar broke the ice. Knowing that I had been in town for a day already, he asked me what I had been up to.
Skylar had absolutely zero familiarity with Mormons or pioneer culture, and so I knew a lot of this would be hard to explain, but I told him the story anyway, watching the look on his face grow more and more puzzled as I continued. I started thinking to myself in the middle of my explanation “Eli. You’re doing the dating thing backwards again. You’re supposed to wait until you’re deep into a relationship before you start telling people stuff like this.”
By the time I finished the story, I fully expected him to leave me over the fact that I probably now seemed like a religious fanatic, and I was getting ready to scream at him “I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW A WOMAN ONCE TOLD ME I WASN’T RELIGIOUS ENOUGH TO DATE HER FAMILY.” But after a moment or two, he spoke, and caught me off guard by screaming, “WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO GO BACK?”
I thought for a moment, a little surprised by the question, and then responded, “do you want to go?”
Skylar said there was nothing he wanted to do more in the world.
So, for the second time in 24 hours, I found myself driving to Kirtland, Ohio, this time to go on my first date with a gay man who found me on the internet.
Dumbledore was off shift and so we were greeted by a very large and flamboyantly gay man who invited us to join another group for the tour that was just starting. The guide got winded frequently and so would turn to the group and say “does anyone know any facts about this building that you would like to share while I catch my breath?”
It was like I had been preparing for this moment my entire life.
Suddenly, I was no longer touring a Mormon temple in Ohio for my first date with this gay man who found me on the Internet, I was leading the tour, very professionally, I might add.
Skylar, for his part, interjected with a lot of softball questions that he knew I could answer based on what I had already told him. Like, “is all of this furniture original or are some of these pieces replicas?”
This made me look like a genius in front of the family from Provo wearing matching family reunion T-shirts.
Skylar and I eventually made our way to Pioneer Village, where we ended up having a very long conversation with an elderly missionary who repeatedly asked us how we knew each other and what brought us to Ohio before finally reading into the awkward side glances and non-responses we were giving and saying “never mind! If I was writing a book about your lives, this would just be the chapter that would never get written!” which, frankly, would make for a very confusing book with a pretty big plot hole.
That little trip to the middle of Ohio was somehow almost four years ago.
Skylar apparently doesn’t scare off very easily because he later moved to Salt Lake City, and we’re getting married later this year. Right now we’re in the process of planning a big party for our wedding, and so far that has been phenomenally miserable.
Sometimes I think back to that time I was dating everyone in the state of Utah–how I was using Tinder to find someone who wasn’t weird–how I thought if I just spent enough time on that app I would eventually find someone who wasn’t weird. And the irony is that I just ended up with the weirdest person on Tinder. But he’s my kind of weird. He’s the kind of weird who thinks the Kirtland temple is a great first date location for a couple of gays.
I sometimes also think back to the 22-year-old version of myself who was dating his second cousins and going on dates with women who were bringing their sisters along. And I wonder what that 22-year-old version of myself would think about the way things all turned out.
I probably don’t want to know.
The funniest thing about all of this, though, is that the 22-year-old version always assumed that dating the person I would end up with–my soulmate–would start at a party and end at a Mormon temple.
I did that backwards.