By Melissa Crisp

My decision to roll wheels-first into the whirlpool of online love had nothing to do with the fact that I teetered on the brink of 30, or because I was tired of sitting in front of my television on Friday nights in the four-legged company of my cats, or even because of my sister’s subtle guilt trip: “If you don’t find a man to marry soon, my kids will never have cousins.” The reason I decided to test the waters of online love was simple. My best friend got engaged. We had been pretty much glued together since our freshman year in college. I don’t think either of us particularly loved being single girls year after year, but as long as we had each other to bitch about the lack of good men, the lonely life didn’t seem quite so lonely.

It didn’t seem fair that her guy practically fell into her lap. So maybe the five long years that she spent in grad school, followed by six months of endless job interviews and rejection letters, topped off by a 500-mile relocation, had something to do with her being in the right place at the right time. Still, no one had offered to set me up with my Mr. Wonderful and change my life.

Fair or not, it was time for me to find a man! So, after surfing the Web for weeks, I finally took the plunge and filled out a long, personal questionnaire on a major dating Web site. They wanted to know everything from the size of my wallet to the size of my waistline. Love online also has a price tag — $19.95 a month and all the men I could handle. So they took my credit card information and promised to find my perfect match.

At first, I found the anonymity of cyber dating highly appealing. Not that I planned to necessarily lie about myself, I just wanted the opportunity to try on different versions of my birthday suit. That anonymity, however, turned out to be a dual-faced friend. As I sat staring at my computer screen, I found myself faced with a serious dilemma. How much of the naked truth did I really want to reveal in my profile? I live in between two separate, yet very valid worlds. I’m a smart chick who has cerebral palsy.

Should I come clean about my disability while still trying to sell all of my other great attributes, or should I focus only on everything that makes me such a hot tamale? I am never ashamed or embarrassed by my disability. It’s just that in real life I never get to play the “normal” girl who flirts with all the cute boys. Now, through the magic of cyber space, I was no longer the disabled girl. I was the fascinating, funny girl who had an equal chance with every guy looking for love on that site. I finally had my chance to be a well-disguised tourist in the world of nondisabled flirtation. So, against the advice of my friends and my conscience, I conveniently left my disability out of my profile.

Holy guacamole, my plan actually worked! I met a sweet, adorably shy guy. We chatted about everything. Our conversations ranged from serious past relationship issues to his garden and my love of purple. I felt fireworks explode in my heart as my head buzzed with possibilities. I fell in love with the words on my computer screen. I wanted more. Reality, however, turned my dreamy buzz into sporadic waves of nausea and worry. I knew that if I ever wanted to meet this guy and go on a real date, I needed to come clean about my wheelchair and my speech impairment. In short, I needed to show him my whole spectacular package, cerebral palsy and all.

First, I had to figure out how to wrap this package. No, I needed to make him see that my disability was just a piece of tape on my exterior wrapping. It served an important role, but in no way defined the content of my interior beauty. In public, my disability is very visible. When boarding a city bus, for example, the driver often identifies me simply as “wheelchair,” or just “chair.” Even over the phone, my scrambled words are a dead giveaway to some unseen medical condition. These images often define someone’s first impression of my intellectual capabilities. For the first time, I had a new identity. I wanted him to remember the smart, sexy girl with the quick wit. He had seen me “naked” without CP. Would that be enough?

When he wanted to know the story behind my catchy screen name, I knew this was my opportunity to lay all my cards on the table. I started off very slowly. “My best friend calls me Rug. It’s short for Rug Rat,” I explained. I could have told him that I was the daughter of a carpet layer, but it was time to stop hiding. So I said a quick prayer and added, “I crawl around when I’m not in my wheelchair. I have CP.” I clicked SEND. “Wheelchair” and “CP” hung in cyberspace like medical pollution.

My fingertips turned a light shade of blue as I anticipated his reply. “Oh, OK,” he replied, after several blank moments. “Do you mind if I ask questions?” I hoped his questions showed that he was still interested and invested in our connection, or at the very least, he was curious. The tainted words had not sent him running for the hills.

Most of his questions dealt with the severity of my disability. He wanted to know what I could and couldn’t do by myself — “Can you walk at all?” and “Will I be able to understand your speech?” His questions were pretty standard, but they felt like the desired results of a good diet. With each question, a pound of fear slipped out the back of my worried mind. I tried to be as honest as possible. After lying by omission, I figured I owed him that much. In hindsight, however, I think I might have been a bit too honest and a bit too eager. He probably didn’t know how to process, “Well, I can’t walk at all and my speech is really difficult for strangers to understand. So, do you wanna meet for coffee this weekend?” I’ve never been very good at taking things slowly.

That night, I thought I was home free. We stayed online for another solid hour, and our conversation only occasionally drifted back to questions regarding my disability. I climbed into bed very happy and much more in love.

Those feelings of glee and love turned out to be very short-lived. Our nightly chats became less and less frequent. He claimed that he was stuck in bed with a bad cold. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible, but after not hearing from him for two and a half weeks, I figured that cold had either killed him or he had unofficially blown me off. I didn’t know how hard I had fallen for him until I hit the ground.

It took me a good six months to venture back into the world of online dating. I decided to take a different approach on a whole new Web site. This time, I had to come clean in my profile, yet it still took a half dozen rewrites to find the best confession. There’s something particularly vulnerable about, “I’m a gimp. Will you still fall in love with me?” In essence, I needed to put the right words together to paint a complete picture of myself without focusing on my CP. I finally settled on this line: “Don’t let my power wheelchair fool you. I can still kick butt at Jeopardy.” It was the final line in my profile, after all of my many spectacular qualities.

Melissa Crisp snuggles with John her new beau.

Melissa Crisp snuggles with John her new beau.

Apparently, the line worked a little too well. I casually mentioned something about my disability or wheelchair while chatting with one guy, and he replied, “Oh, you were serious? I figured it was some weird joke.” Well hell, I couldn’t win! I came clean about the chair, not a huge selling point in this virtual land of perfect potential mates, and the dude thinks I’m joking! That conversation rolled downhill faster than my wheelchair without brakes.

My favorite guys are the ones who simply want to know if all my sexual capabilities are intact and in good working order. They’re not looking for any type of relationship beyond a virtual or, in a few cases, a real one-night tumble in the sack with a blow job included. As soon as a guy asked, “What are you wearing tonight?” or “Can you still feel pleasure down there?” I knew the exact direction of our conversation. In the beginning, this was fun and very flattering. I don’t think most people in the real world see me as a sexual being, which is funny because I’m just as horny as the next girl.

I found out something very interesting about myself during these chats. I can turn on my inner vixen and talk dirty with the best hookers in Hollywood. I guess all those R-rated movies and cheesy romance novels really paid off. After a while, these chats grew incredibly boring. I longed to talk about anything other than my bra size and my hottest sexual fantasy, so I refused to engage in these conversations. Occasionally, I still told guys about the benefits they could reap from self-service.

When I began my love quest, I didn’t want to limit my options to Web sites specifically created for people with disabilities. Deep down, I wanted to prove that I was charming, smart, funny enough for some handsome, strong, “normal” guy to overlook my wheels and my scrambled speech and fall madly in love. Eventually, I did register on a site for single adults with disabilities. I felt like I was being a bit of a hypocrite. After all, if I wanted a guy to love me in spite of my disability, I had to be willing to do the same for him.

The guy who fell into my best friend’s lap two years ago recently slipped a wedding ring on her finger. Their engagement lasted a year. During that year, their love for one another began to offer me hope. If a sweet guy can fall in love with a smart, funny girl with a visual impairment, then there has to be someone out there just for me. Sometimes, it just takes your best friend falling in love to kick your own search into high gear.

Then, at the tail end of November, my own incredibly sweet Mr. Wonderful quietly slipped into my Inbox. It began with a simple “flirt” (a way of saying “You look interesting” on this particular dating Web site) from someone with an odd screen name: Kamakiri. This strange sounding Kamakiri character soon turned into John, a writer from Iowa who happened to be blind. At first, our relationship consisted of intimate e-mails and occasional online chats. When I finally got up the nerve to tell him about my speech impairment, he replied, “I don’t care if you sound like Porky Pig, I still want to talk to you.” I knew I was in love and that he could be a keeper.

By Christmas, our revealing nightly phone conversations were no longer enough. We needed to meet. After much wrangling over an appropriate meeting date (John wanted to come out to California in January, but I cautiously wanted to wait until April), we settled on February 15th. To make the long and wonderful story of our meeting a little shorter and sweeter, John’s planned nine-day visit turned into a twenty-four day love affair. Then he had to return to Iowa.

We were a perfectly suited match made in cyber space.