(Here's a rough draft of a nonfiction piece I just wrote for a writers' group tomorrow. )
It was the summer of 1994. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation. My roommate was in Hawaii for the summer. My interest in the O. J. Simpson case waned immediately after peaking, and, like any self-respecting doctoral student, I sought distraction. A boyfriend would do just fine.
At the age of 35, my single status was getting, shall we say, old. My mother and grandmother had given up on me, but I hadn’t yet. This was the twilight of the Age Before Internet Dating, so I turned to the Philadelphia Inquirer personals. Was my soulmate calling out to me from there? First, I had rules. Standards. No kinky stuff, and most importantly no one who said they liked walks on the beach at sunset or candlelight dinners. Please! I’m worthy of someone more original than that. The personals were set up so that you left a message in a voicemail box and gave your phone number, hoping they’d call you back. The message would be all they had to go by, so every time I left a message I would rehearse it several times, to make it sound light and breezy, and spoken in confident low tones. It took nothing less than total concentration.
The first man to call me back was Josh. He was a therapist in the Northeast, and easy to talk to, as a therapist would be. An hour went by before I knew it, and we set up a date for a drink in Center City, non-alcoholic, of course. Standards. Josh had warned me that he was six feet eight inches tall. I marked it on the wall of my apartment and practiced looking up to where his eyes might be. It was very high. Still and all, I thought of my own 5 ft. 8 inches, and thought, “Tall’s good, right?”
What he didn’t warn me about was that would be ramrod thin, with an outsized nose, wearing a light blue seersucker suit, and sporting a straw hat. Six feet eight. Light blue seersucker suit. Straw hat. Huge nose. I became acquainted with a sinking feeling that I was sure he could see in my face. In the whole time we talked in the coffee shop, the feeling never went away. I fought back tears. It hadn’t occurred to me me that a person who sounded so normal could be so mortifyingly strange-looking. I prayed to God that no one I knew would see me with this character, who looked like he could play the part of a Bible salesman in a Flannery O’Connor novel. Then I felt ashamed of myself for feeling this way about a perfectly fine person. Finally a decent interval passed, and we parted. “Can I call you again some time?” he asked just before he went down the steps to the subway station,” and I said “No, I don’t think so.” His face fell and he said, “OK, well, thanks, anyway.” And his lanky frame disappeared into the darkness of the station. And I crawled back to my apartment on my belly, groaning and eating dust.
Weeks went by, in which I was actually driven to write a chapter or two. But then I did it again. This time the ad intrigued me because this man said his favorite movie was Gregory’s Girl, which was also one of my favorite movies at the time. The guy couldn’t be that bad. So I rehearsed another call and left a polished version in the voicemail box. He called me back, and I learned his name was Jeff and that he worked for Community College of Philadelphia. And that he was five feet eight and lived in Roxborough.
Fine. I prepared myself for a plain-looking man. Realism, realism. A plain-looking man with a discerning taste in movies, of modest height living in a working class neighborhood. A humble man, faithful and true! Who would love me through all the years of our lives. As I approached him I could see that had no discernible chin. What I mean is that a large flabby something existed between chin and neck, it being itself neither chin nor neck. In other words, he was ugly in a completely different way, a diametrically opposite way from Josh. “Lauren, you must be Lauren!” he said eagerly. “Hello Jeff,” I said in a lukewarm tone of voice. “I’m getting better at this,” I thought. “My mortification and shame are decidedly duller this time. And I don’t think he can even see it in my face.”
My smugness was shattered when I glimpsed a man I knew. I hid behind a column. “You were saying?” I asked brightly. “I was saying, I read your article. What does that French quote mean?” My unnerving was now total. I remembered I had told him about an article that I had published in Modern Drama. And he read it. The only person to this day who has read it, to my knowledge, other than my professor. And he wants to know what that French passage means! Shit! “I don’t even remember, to tell you the truth.” He was trying way too hard.
We had a soda at a neighborhood restaurant, and some appetizers. I ordered a hummus platter, whereupon I learned that he had never heard of hummus. Never heard of hummus? How was that even possible? I was mystified. Hummus was the staple food of every grad student party and I guess I thought everyone ate the stuff. “So do you like Roxborough? I asked, and he said yes, and that he would never leave it, because it was “safe” with so many cops living there. “Safe.” I was moving away, fast, from humble man, faithful and true, to bigoted man, narrow-minded and . . . . and doesn’t that tie pinch his neck? Or is that his chin?
Third time’s a charm, right? One more time, I told myself. Late July. There’s still time to find Mr. Right before my roommate returns and deflates my hopes. Before classes resume and I get back in the groove of flirting harmlessly with the safe married men and the safe gay men of my department. One more foray into the uncharted territory of the personals. Think Goldilocks, Goldilocks.
Joe was man number three. I sat waiting for him at Le Bus thinking I’ve seen two physical extremes, so now I’m hardened to anything. That guy from Beauty and the Beast is kind of sexy after all. Plus, I don’t really care about meeting a man, anyway, so what if I’m single and childless my whole life? Even if I become a bag lady, I’ll at least have some good books in that bag and some funny stories. “Hi, are you Lauren?” asked a man with black hair and a beard. “Yes?” “I’m Joe.” He smiled warmly. I stared. There was nothing perceivably amiss about his appearance. He was actually attractive. Decently dressed. Didn’t smell bad. Goldilocks. We had a lovely conversation. He was a nurse. He lived in West Philly near me. He played the saxophone. He was Italian. He was masculine without being macho. His last words were “I’ll call you. We’ll listen to jazz at Ortlieb’s.”
What can I say? “Goldilocks.” We married the next year, and now we have two sets of twins. Couldn’t be happier. I could also say “Stinky Cheese Man.” I waited for Joe to call me. Three weeks later, I finally called him. Light and breezy. Confident low tones. “Hi Joe. It’s Lauren . . . how have you been?” “Lauren . . .?” “From Le Bus three weeks ago?” Silence. “We met through the personals? I ordered an Orangina?” I was beginning to hate myself. “I have to say, I don’t remember you. I’ve been working through a lot of issues lately . . . . I’m sorry.”
Another chapter in my dissertation got written. I swore I’d never tell my roommate about my summer. She came back and I promptly told her everything. She said “That’ll teach me to go away for the summer.” I fell back into the academic routine, flirted with the safe men. The next year I finished my dissertation, got a teaching job, and met my husband at a party at my own house. We now have two wonderful children. But not before I joined a dating service and met a lawn and garden supply salesman and a brick salesman. Did you know there are 250 different kinds of bricks?