PARSING THE PERSONALS
It was my daughter who first noticed the commotion. She looked out our sixth floor window, ran back to the TV, then to the window, shouting: "They're right outside," meaning the Macy's balloons, and a slew of local newscasters. We raced downstairs to find hundreds milling about, surveying Cat-in-the-Hat, Barney, Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters. Unlike the parade due the next morning, the mood on this exceedingly cold eve of Thanksgivingwas festive and intimate. Huge balloons were lying up and down our street, some flaccid, some taut, plus lots of kids with their dads.
As Lyze inspected the rudiments of Snowman and Donald Duck, I inspected rosy-faced, bright-eyed, attractive men. They looked like divorced dads, though how to tell for sure? After several years of celibacy--what shrieked through my mind was: I’ve forgotten to look for a man, much the way those t-shirts (O, my god I left the kids on the bus or Yikes I forgot to get married) capture, in caricature, the downside of our lives. The blurb in my head was half-funny; half-serious. Serious enough that the minute my daughter fell asleep, I was inside the 900 world of The New York Observer personals.
I'd browsed these pages once before so I knew that men advertizing in this paper were often "middle-aged, Jewish, professionals"-- supposedly just like me. But I also knew there was a complicated system to decode. Now that I'd seen those cute fathers out on the street, I was so motivated I cracked the code in two minutes; it was a cinch.
You simply dial a 900 number, choose a guy whose ad sounds alright, then press his four digit extension (numbers that range from 6012-8023, for no discernible reason). And then for three minutes this guy adds on voice mail whatever he left out of his written ad (a few just read exactly what they'd had printed). Now you have a choice: Answer the ad (press 3), listen to this message again (2), disconnect (1) or–and this is the important tip--press 0 which gives you a slew of others "who fit the same general description."
My first, 7502, was Irv: "fifty, recently widowed," though his far-away voice sounded febrile so I pressed 0 where I then "met" Marvin, Dave and Alex--tepid, fake cheery or positively elderly. I reflected that "50" was a no doubt a code for "60", maybe even "70". So I began all over again with 7882 ("SJM, 45, successful, divorced, looking for a friendly woman, no head trips, non-smoker, who likes theater and nights out in NYC"). This ad was a little bland, but by then I was used to bland. The real reason I dialed his number was to slip into the 40-49 zone where I listened to Eliot's self-description ("Hey out there. I: work out four times a week, have strong biceps, am in great shape, look way younger than 48").
These phrases bore a curious resemblance to all the others--gyms, forceps, biceps, working out--all were big. Not a single man used one unexpected (ie: interesting) word. If you compiled a list of what they collectively liked to do you'd think you'd dialed up Outward Bound. Kyacs were in, also canoes, skiing, ballroom dancing, hiking and biking. It seemed as if mid-life late-90's dating was mostly about moving as fast as possible in the out-of-doors--my idea of punishment. No one mentioned reading, though "classical music, theater and travel" recurred (usually rolled together in one slur.)
By the second hour, I was pressing 0 like crazy. It was amazing how fast I could picture Roy and Tony and Mike after only a few words or by the way they pronounced their names. 0: next. 0: another. There were hundreds of lonely hearts out there and not one suggested the rosy-cheeked winter cheer of the guys down by the balloons, the ones who'd gotten me pressing buttons like a maniac in the first place.
Getting bored, I switched on Charles Grodin on CNBC--the kind of guy I really like. I tried listening to him while scanning the last of the personals but it was impossible to focus on two voices at once. So I listened to the personals during commercials (pressing mute). When Grodin came back, I placed the phone on the floor, letting the personal ads roll out of earshot into my carpet. Since this method was ridiculously expensive. I was about to hang up, when I heard Phil.
Phil: A voice present to itself! A confident voice which didn't waste one second of his three minutes describing either his physical person, his biking/hiking habits, nor--in the driest of tones--announce what a great sense of humor he had. Phil simply was funny, completely unscripted: "I'm a masculine guy. Hold on, I know what you're thinking" he said in a robust tone I hadn't heard in the 100-odd others, "But that doesn't mean I'm not intuitive as well." Then, after a few hilarious anecdotes about his spontaneous trips to Cuba and El Salvador, he said: "I'll cut to the chase and talk about you. You're feminine but not sleazy. You're an original. You have a great smile. I’ll admit I was once hooked on head-turners, but I'm working on that. I've learned the hard way (how else?) that perfection is boring. So you're pretty, not necessarily a great beauty. The key thing is that we can challenge each other when we need to be challenged. But we can also let that rest, watch a good movie, tune out this high strung life."
On the page this may not sound earth shattering, but then you didn't hear the voices that preceded him . Phil ended in a perfect male crescendo: "OK. I know this is hard. You want to hang up. But you won't. Take a deep breath. Remember, it doesn't matter what you say. Jump in. You'll be fine. Just talk to me; whatever comes into your mind." Hearing this, the female in me woke right up. This guy was great. I couldn't believe it. It was like talking to someone you'd actually want to talk to again. But in the excitement of my find, I inadvertently pressed (1) "disconnect" instead of (2) "hear this message again.” By now, it was almost 2:00 AM and I had no idea what Phil's four digit number was, so I had to start over with "male, 40-49" or give up. I listened to Charles Grodin, turned low, waiting for Phil's unmistakable voice to rise from the phone receiver now lying in my lap.
Half an hour later he came on. I pressed 2 twice, certain to catch every intonation of his voice before speaking up myself (3). I have no idea exactly what I said. I rambled. I told him he was a breath of fresh air after the other guys. I said something about the Thanksgiving pre-parade, about how I'd forgotten to look for a man.
Then I talked myself into a little ditch by saying I was taking a long intermission between love affairs. That for me love's a full time job. And what with my kid and my writing, I've kinda neutered out. Then I added something like: "I'm really sorry I'm not ready for a tumble because you sound great." I was so in-the-moment, I even yelled at my dogs to stop lying all over my papers in my three allotted minutes. I must have sounded unusually immediate--but of course unusually, extremely defensive as well.
Because while talking to Phil, I dimly remembered the love game, realizing that I too would have to be a "non-smoker," would need to really work out, say five or ten times a week, in some gym. All those bad habits we fall into without romantic (or nice married) love no doubt put me far down on the totem pole of lust. I didn't tell Phil this; I barely got my first name and number in before "beep"--my time was up. Contrary to my rap, I very clearly enunciated both.
And then, like every ninny in love, I waited for him to call. And then, like every woman who waits too intently, he didn't. Which convinced me, who didn't need much convincing, that I was not ready for the roller coaster of romance. After mild disappointment, what I felt was relief. (Now I was free to smoke just as much and exercise just as little--very little--as I liked.)
Weeks went by and I probably would have forgotten the whole thing (men, Phil, the personals) except last night I had a rare bout of insomnia. Reading for hours, I finished every article strewn around my bed, finally left with only those personal ads. (It's the last page in the Observer--in case you're interested).
That's then I remembered Phil, wondered if he was taking calls, or more likely: was already off the market. After dialing the main 900 number, I headed straight for "male, 40-49". Most of the other guys were still there, but Phil was not. I felt a little sad. Not that I couldn't meet him. Even if he had called, I wasn't planning to actually meet him, but sorry not to hear his message again. Because despite years of feminism and independence and happiness without passionate love, I like a testosterone man, a guy who can structure me. I kept pressing 0, hoping to hear his take-charge voice saying: "Take a deep breath. Just do it." But he was gone.
Wide awake at 3:00 AM, I wondered if any of the so-called 50 set were new. Some were; most weren't. Only half listening, I was about to hang up when I heard the tail-end of a voice that sounded positively ebullient, vaguely familiar. I pressed 2 just in time to hear the message all the way through and, I kid you not, what I heard was the voice of my ex-husband.
To use a cliche when it's needed: I shot bolt upright. This was Eddie alright: loud, homy, still bragging: "Hey, I'm gorgeous, way better looking than any guy at 53 (here he only shaved two years). "Trust me, I'm a catch..." He paused as I perfectly pictured his thick fingers drumming on some desk. "OK...specifics" he was free-associating, "Film producer, work half-time in Morrocco, kinda love/hate relation with Northern Africa..." He went on, defiantly robust, all too spontaneous, as our entire life came rolling back, all those minute particulars you live for years but which somehow evaporate after the divorce. Eddie actually sounded second best only to Phil and I was considering leaving him a message, which definitely would have knocked his socks off, when he added:"O yeah, and I have a great kid".
With that, I almost threw the phone across the room, thinking `O yeah, and just when do you plan to live in the same country as her, visit her?.’ I sure didn't need to press 2 again, since I'd heard that hyper braggadoccio voice non-stop--for a very long 15 years.
But once I hung up, I wasn't really mad. Because it's surprisingly nice to actually know anyone out in personal-ad land personally, even someone with whom you're currently not on speaking terms for the very best of reasons. After three hours if sleep, I woke puzzling over the odd way I'd heard my ex for the first in years. Soon, while I was busy spooning pink antibiotic syrup to my kid and trying to feed the dogs at the same time, the phone rang. My daughter picked up.
Shrugging my way, she said: "Mom, it's someone named Phil".
This was the first of many calls, none of which were especially interesting. For me, our relation had ended as soon as I'd written about it. But this guy was intent on setting up a meeting. At most, I only wanted to chat on the phone. But since he always called me from work, he was invariably rushed. This meant that from that first call we were in a tug of war, where incidentally he did not sound at all like that take-charge masculine guy on voice mail.
He began asking me to please call him Paul and not Phil-- fair enough, since that was his name. Only after I faxed him the above (part#1), he was so flattered that he switched to calling himself Phil. That meant that now we always had a little confusion over his name whenever he called, calls which mainly rehashed our basicl dispute: the on-the-phone vs. the-in-person thing. He usually had a good excuse to rush me (work) and I also had a good excuse not to meet (work). Our entire relationship consisted of lots of tiny day talks on calls he made to me; not only was I disinterested, but I kept losing his number under a mess of other papers.
Some calls became mildly funny. Others were fleetingly honest and even though nothing he said sent chills down my spine, a little understanding and, dare I say, loyalty began growing between us. Finally, he wore me down. I'd put him off as long as possible, and by simply speaking to him I had led him on. So we made a lunch date. I warned him that the chances of our having any combustible chemistry were mighty slim, adding that we were far more likely to have a stereo interaction (the man sold stereo systems) than a personal attraction. (The single most authoritative thing he said was,"They look great, but keep away from Bang and Olafson"-- which I did.)
We arranged to meet for lunch, near his shop, on 23rd street. When the day arrived it was pouring like mad and I was writing well so that going downtown to meet this bland stranger seemed, from the magnet of my desk on the Upper West Side, like traveling to the far side of the moon, and for no good reason. Since (rushed as usual) he told me he only had an hour tops, I figured he only wanted to check me out quickly, not what I'd call a fun adventure. I also guessed that he didn't run the store, as he claimed, but worked as a cashier or clerk under someone else's time control. I didn't want to embarrass him, seeing that.
By canceling at the last minute, I fully expecting his wrath. But he surprised me with a new sweetness, making only a mildly funny pitch–one without anger or hostility. This endeared him to me since breaking dates at the last minute rarely evokes anyone's humorous side. Ever since I'd written and he'd read the funny true piece about him, I suspected he was trying to emulate that guy I'd described from the voicemail. Who could blame him? Though he never sounded remotely as masculine as when incarnated as 4892 (his voice was flatter and far too rushed for my taste), his letting me off the hook was so nice that I began to consider another dubious encounter, then put the phone down for a second, to scold the dogs). When I picked up the receiver, he said, "Segued nicely away from that" which word gave his stock a small boost.
"OK, you're off the hook today" he said.
"I won a round?" I said, surprised.
"So you did."
My read on Paul now included that he was decent, if lacking in inner space, that open leisure I also need in a man. By now we'd had chatted often enough that a short-hand honesty had developed--we were almost friends.
As December moved along, I went on struggling, chapter through laborious chapter, on a draft of a book, promising to call him whenever I had a break. But he always beat me to it, calling first. Finally, with the house eerily quiet over winter break (the child and the dogs gone) I was fully free to work around the clock. When Paul next called, we arranged for him to come and visit me at my home. I gave him my full name and my accurate address even though my friends always joke that on any first encounter with a man, I should not let anyone see my house. You see, my house announces that I am well-heeled and we’ve been to that movie before: how being rich immediately shifts the ground of any meeting.
But right now I didn’t care if he knew I was Central Park West wealthy. No, my biggest fear was that I’d find him boring. So after giving him my fancy address, I reiterated the stereo theme--stressing the sale, not our date--as we set the time tentatively for 2:00 PM, Christmas afternoon. ("I might have other plans but I'll try and break them" he responded). I thought he was safe, but insisted that my next door neighbor, Jacob, should knock and then open my door at exactly 2:15 just to be sure I wasn't entertaining some kind of nut.
At noon that very day I hit a huge snag in the pivotal fifth chapter which threw me into a misery only writing this manuscript can provoke-- an unbearable pressure to immediately set the problem right, while not at all certain what the problem is. I was in shock, discovering so flawed these pages I'd thought gorgeous last time I looked. The thought of handling Phil/ Paul as well sent me over the top. For meeting him, at very least, required getting dressed and combing my hair, two things Chapter Five, however challenging, did not demand.
I surprised myself when he called me at 1 PM by just flat out canceling for 2 because ordinarily I am not that rude. He was pissed, and rightly so. In his mild quasi-manly voice he said that he'd had it with me, that he wouldn't call again-- that he saw I really wasn't ready for socializing and he hung up.
I felt a spasm of real guilt then, picturing him nicely attired, spiffed up, all readiness. Maybe this date was the high point of his week, something he'd really looked forward to: To at least making a sale if not a relationship. This guilt was also, or mostly, directed at myself. I had to wonder if I wasn't neglecting too much of real life for my writing mania. I sensed that my priorities were becoming more than a little unbalanced. So I tacked his name and number onto my bulletin board. I figured when I finished the book (if the book didn't finish me first) I'd right matters, apologize, and take him for lunch.
I didn't think of him again, except to tease Jacob--who did not show up at 2:15 as planned --that had anything violent gone down, it would have been his fault. And with that Paul receded into never-never land until my birthday, Feb.24th, when we finally met.
On my birthday I have a private ritual: I meditate and do no work. It’s the one day guaranteed for rest because on my birthday I always meditate, taking a vacation from my pressured life--a day that's usually full of invisible and visible blessings. This February 24th was no exception, was even better than usual. That monster manuscript left me alone. I was relaxing with the newspaper on my new pink brocade daybed, enjoying the winter sun streaming over me, lighting up the newspaper as well.
That’s when I encountered Paul. He filled up more than half a page of the Metro section in the New York Times, B1. I didn't recognize him at first-- after all, I'd never seen him. The first thing I noticed on the page, before glancing at the huge headlines, was a photo of a man who, of all remarkable things, was my type.
"Yum" I thought, and then I read the headline: MAN CHARGED WITH RAPING DATE MET ON INTERNET. The story was laid out under the large photo-- a burly, rugged guy being carted away by two police, arms locked behind his back, under arrest for raping, sodomizing and holding captive a woman he'd met on e-mail personals. There were a few other unseemly sexual items described, mostly having to do with chains and leather.
But I was far more taken with an inset, another visual, which showed a polished netscape ad for the guy's "home entertainment" business. Only then did it leap out at me (Paul, stereophonic, 23rd Street) that this `my kinda guy', this sexual deviant heading for jail, was Phil/ Paul. This whole article inspired me to finally search for and find the stick-em yellow paper with his full name, phone and address and it was him alright; all the numbers lined up; the address and shop matched. He was the rapist, sodomist, leather hooojimowatchee, now given such huge press.
There wasn't one really good word said on his behalf. “Innocuous” was the only accolade, a quote from a neighbor. Of course it is always the quiet, non-descript types who commit violent acts (that is, when it isn't the savage, obvious type). But reading about him I didn't feel what you, reader, are no doubt thinking. I did not feel either lucky or intuitive about breaking our date. What I felt was guilty all over again-- as if had we'd met and begun a mild friendship maybe he wouldn't be in this jam. I also strongly suspected that was innocent.
I know. You're thinking "how totally retro, how female, how masochistic". But in addition to the resonance I had with his bulky frame, far more to the point, by now we'd had enough phone calls so that I’d gotten a rudimentary profile of the guy, who had given into me, difficult as I'd been. I didn't believe he was guilty of anything more than kinky consensual sex, no matter what that paper said. They were making a big deal about the case only because of the Internet connection. Inside my spacy, leisurely day, all the subjects we fitted into our short and hurried phone friendship came racing back to me. I didn’t believe; I was certain he was innocent.
I followed the news, of course. He was released on $15,000 dollars bail the next day, and two days later all charges against him were dropped by the judge--at the prosecutor's request. Paul's lawyer was ranting furiously on every New York News station that he'd had proof from the get-go that Paul's "female accuser" had actually left him a taped message, this after the supposed rape, saying what a great time she'd had. Paul seemed passive and more than a little naive. At the press conference, after they released him he said, "I'm sure glad that's over." But of course it isn't over even if he is totally, 100% innocent. Because he was clearly seen and described on every nightly TV station' and ditto: Shown in every daily paper. Now his physical person, his full home and business addresses, even his brief biography are out in the public domain--under "Rapist". Just how many out there gaping into media-land are going to register or remember the fine print-- that all charges were dropped?
He did seem kind of lonely like lots of us can be in the Big Apple. I guess we won't ever know exactly what went on--he cooked her dinner, he lives on Barrow Street and had some kind of sex with his accuser. And of course he’s now about to have a serious setback in his already not-so-hot social life.
At first what I felt about this story was pure fascination--admittedly a narcissistic response. I was just amazed that the one and only guy I've ever met through an ad (I don't even date but just fall in love and marry people I've known for a decade or so)--a man I’d even taken time out to write about, was getting all this publicity. I felt mildly sorry for him, mistrusted her, but wrote them off as two odd ducks.
But after the excitement of the coincidence wore off, to my surprise Paul's ordeal moved into me, despite myself. I spent time feeling sad for him, or for all of us, which gave my mind a needed stroll away from obsessive re-writing. (Chapter 5 was a walk in the woods compared to my tormenting struggle with Chapter 14). One night, after trying with no luck to figure out how to solve my latest writing crisis, I took a Sunday afternoon nap.
When I woke, I was dreaming of Paul. It was a visual image but also a kind of running commentary in which he was the magnet for that consciousness we call loneliness. It was as if Paul had lost something over the years even more critical than his current public relation ordeals..
I stretched and looked out the window at an expanse of Central Park. But still half asleep or maybe even still dreaming, what I saw ressembled a Magritte painting: there were a few identical Paul's (minus any black boulder hats). They were standing ten or twenty feet apart in the Park below; another two stood just below my apartment, out on the street. I must have been more in dream space than awake, though I was feeling curiously alert. And what I saw filled me with such poignant sadness because this image, which dissolved in less than a second, but lingered for days, seemed a visual wail from the heart of that mindstream, where childhood is definitely over, but adulthood is too hard to navigate.
I still can still conjure those Paul/Phils, out the window, the fifteen of them standing there and there and there, all identical, all living on as an embodiment of that suffering our culture has created, what can multiply easily in big cities: An isolated life that without luck can assault anyone of us in spades.