Chapter Four

For fifteen years now Norm had been employed in the accounting department of a specialty chemicals plant that, despite chronic financial distress, remained one of the county's largest employers. He didn't like the job, but it was easy work. Unfortunately, he could never be sure how long the work would last. On a few brief occasions in the last decade, the plant had sat idle. Those were scary times for Norm, as they were no doubt for the rest of company's workforce, but sound management was keeping the place afloat. Norm hoped it would stay that way.

He was seated at his desk reviewing accounts receivable when Sadie Newell, the company secretary, poked her head into his office.

Sadie was one of the few people in Norm's life whose mere presence was enough to lift his spirits. Always upbeat, with frizzy blond hair and a broad grin, the thirty-three-year-old mother of two small boys was a joy to be around. Her husband, Dave, was a lucky fellow, and Norm often wished he had found her first—although he doubted she would have ever gone for a guy like him.

"Hi, Norm," she sang out. "Have you decided?"

"I'm really not comfortable with it, Sadie."

"Norm!" Her tone was exasperated. For several weeks now she had been after him to embrace the world of online dating. She had pointed Norm to the singles website through which she met her husband and urged him to create an online profile there. But Norm was reluctant to do so. Last Friday he had said he would make a final decision over the weekend. Today was Tuesday, the first time they had talked since.

"I know, I know," he said. "I guess I'm just old-fashioned."

Sadie stepped into the office, lowering her voice. "Look, Norm, I wasn't comfortable with it either," she said. "I've told you that. My friends dragged me into it kicking and screaming—but I'm so glad they did, because if they hadn't I would never have met Dave."

Norm did not respond.

"It's hard enough to meet people in this town," she went on. "Why don't you let the internet do some of the work for you?"

"I just don't know."

-o-

That night Norm Peters took a seat in front of his computer. He leaned down, turned it on. As he waited for the startup process to complete, he thought, I hate my life.

He was planning to look at some adult entertainment before going to bed. He never needed a reason to do so, of course, but he noticed that he was much more inclined to do so when, first, under great stress or, second, feeling sad. Tonight it was the second scenario.

It hurt most when he saw families with young children: a mother, a daddy, two or three little moppets. Because he seldom went out in public except to go to work, Norm encountered few such families. But they could not be avoided completely. On his lunch hour, or on the weekend when he went to the public library to check out a book or two, he would see a perfect little family unit and think: This isn't right. I'm a good man. I can provide for a family. I want to provide for a family. So why hasn't it happened? What am I doing wrong?

He reserved special interest—and, frankly, ire—for the men in the families.

Tell me something, he would say to these guys, at least in his own mind. Do you treat your family well? Are you faithful to your wife? Do you play with those kids? Do you tell them you love them? Are you thankful each night to have them in your life? I hope you are. I hope you know how lucky you are to have all these things I want so desperately. I'm sure you say so, but do you mean it? Do you feel it? I'm not sure that you do.

Norm's computer was ready to go. He glanced at the Internet Explorer icon.

Then again, I say I want these things, but what am I doing to get them? If I want them as badly as I say I do, shouldn't I be willing to tolerate a little discomfort, a little potential embarrassment? I mean, one thing is for damn sure. I'm not going to meet anyone porn-surfing every night. At least Sadie's suggestion offers me a chance at happiness.

Norm clicked the icon.

I have a choice. I can go to one of the many porn tubes I've bookmarked on this machine and waste another few hours of my life, or I can go to the dating website Sadie told me about and take a chance. Something good might come of that chance, whereas nothing good will come of going to these porn sites.

Yet his fingers hovered over the keyboard.

But I'm afraid.

He let his hands fall in his lap.

Afraid of what, though? Realistically, what should be scarier to me—the prospect of having a couple of bad dates, or of being alone all my life?

His hands found the keyboard again.

Being alone, he decided, bar none.

He typed the name of the website in the address bar.

And in an instant, there it was: a beautiful lavender screen studded with pictures of happy smiling couples of all races and ages.

Come on, Norm, he told himself. Keep going.

Drawing his breath deep, he clicked on the tab that read, "Create New Account."