Read an Excerpt
 Meant for Each Other
SWF LOOKING FOR you, a slim, attractive, kind, honest and generous man who understands the value of hard work, loves his family and hopes to meet a special lady. I bring sweetness and a true heart to the table. Mid-40s or older. Let me hear from you.
People like to say it's the little things that'll end a relationship, but those people are amateurs. Being sentenced to prison, excusing oneself to go get cigarettes and never returning, the ill-timed discovery that one's beloved is attracted to another gender or species--those are little things. They are nothing compared to having every single moment of your daily existence--every detail, every gesture, everything you say or do or think--be a point of contention. Let me explain. I am apparently hard to live with. I have been told this, repeatedly. I smoke, I swear, I dress badly, I snore and steal blankets, I make too much noise in the bathroom and forget to flush, I wash whites with darks, and I chew loudly. I inspire neither tender words nor sweet nothings, only criticisms and complaints. Don't leave hair in the sink. Be nice to my mother. For the last time, put the seat down. Sheesh. You'd think the person who's supposed to know me better than anybody wouldn't have so many questions. Why do I always buy yellow mustard when I've been told a million times to get honey dijon? Why do I constantly turn the thermostat down when it's cold outside, and up when it's warm? Why am I so cheap? Why am I so quiet? And why do I look so mad all the time?
This is what love can turn into. Pettiness, cruelty, unhappiness, taking little digs at each other, playing cruel mind games and having spats, trotting out every instance of betrayal and hurt in order to score points in a game neither one of us understands or could possibly win. This is what happens after the bliss gets threadbare, as bliss inevitably must. Every word comes out sounding hostile and sarcastic; we can't even clear our throats without one of us demanding to know just what the hell the other one means by that crack.
Things are tough at home. We're in our ninth consecutive year of breaking up in the most bitter and unpleasant manner imaginable, a new personal best for me, though I don't feel particularly proud. People can find love and be happy-ever-after, I know this, I've seen it on television and in the movies; I've even had it in my own life. We were happy, at first--playing house, making dinner together, holding hands and talking for hours and hours, blissfully unaware of the time and the disaster that awaited us. But, sadly, the word honeymoon is nearly inevitably, practically always, followed by the word over. Now our mutual unhappiness and inability to actually end this agony are the only aspects of life in which we've proven to be compatible. We're both equally miserable, and we both desperately want to play the victim, we have that in common, but lately it has occurred to me that these are, perhaps, not enough reasons upon which to base a long-term relationship. We know we can't go on like this forever. Fighting has become exhausting and only occasionally exhilarating, and lately the old thrill of raising voices over the gas bill or nearly coming to blows over taking out the garbage is gone. We're in one of those phases where I sleep on the couch--it's been every night for the past two years, by mutual agreement; we may go to bed angry, but at least we get some sleep. In our waking hours, we go on and on, sniping and fighting, every morning and every night. In between, I go to work.
At work, all the bad stuff fades away, all the bitterness and hostility and unhappiness. At work, there is love. Love. From nine to five, it's unavoidable. There is love, and romance and passion and hope, and chemistry and rapport and delight, and hot mind-numbing sex so incredible that your bones vibrate afterward, and no one criticizing anyone's cooking skills or mismatched socks or the way one hangs the toilet paper. Ah, work. It's pure bliss, I tell you.
I love my job. I love the subway ride every morning through the bowels of Chicago, I love opening the door of the building I work in, I love climbing the steps to my office and finding the stack of personal ads waiting for me on my desk, each a tale of joy and woe, and I love that my phone is ringing before I even sit down, before I can get that first cup of coffee.
"But I don't know what to say," the woman on the other end of the phone tells me. I hear this several times every day. "I just don't want to sound like a pathetic loser, you know?"
"Lady," I tell her, "me neither."
Admission: I work in the personals. If you're confused, I understand. Back in the old days, before computers and cell phones and speed dating and singles clubs, the personals were the most efficient and safe way to meet people. Need a date? Write a personal. Looking for a husband or a wife? Place an ad. I can help you find a bridge partner, a mistress, someone with whom to both carpool and indulge in your strange balloon fetish, just tell me what you want. You still see personals these days, strange little ads filled with strange little abbreviations usually found in the back pages of newspapers, where they do no harm and attract little attention; you'd miss them unless you were really looking. Personals are noteworthy mostly for the strange code they're written in, a cacophony of capital letters and staccato, rat-tat-tat descriptions that somehow or other translate into someone's deepest longings or darkest desires--like this:
SWF 38 sks SM35-50 for LTR. Be nsmk, fit, D/D-free, urb. dwell, no chld.
In English, this translates as "Single white female, age thirty-eight, seeks single male, thirty-five to fifty years old, for long-term relationship. You must be a nonsmoker, fit, drug- and disease-free, urban dweller, and have no children." See? It's easy. Once you've picked up the basics, it's really very simple. Of course, this is only a start; it's one thing to say what you want, but it's quite another to get what you want. And that's where I come in.
Working in the personals isn't all glamorous fun--it isn't a cushy job, like writing obituaries. An obituary, like a personal ad, is something that happens when everything else fails and you have nothing left to lose, but the resemblance ends there. Those obituary guys have it made, because their people aren't nearly as needy as mine. Nobody calls them to complain that their obituary makes them sound too desperate. Obituaries have all the legitimacy and gravitas that the personals lack: being dead is awful, but it's better than the shame of being lonely.
People have a hard time believing that there's a person who actually works in the personals; what's more, once they get to know me, they have a hard time believing that person would be me. I understand. The irony of a guy in my particular romantic circumstances being the go-to man for fulfilling the heart's desire of an entire city is apparent on the face of it. The expectation is that I would be a hard, bitter, jaded cynic who has long since taken to drinking heavily. But, strangely, I'm not and I haven't. I believe in love. Not having love just makes my need to believe in it that much stronger.
"I'm not unattractive," she tells me. "Though, sure, I know I could stand to lose a few pounds. I have a job, and friends, and a life--but I don't want to oversell myself, either." I'm helping her sum up her personality in fifty to a hundred words, to appear in the back of a newspaper. If you've never tried it, it's actually a tricky kind of writing to do. Listing what's good about you can be incredibly dull, and can also accidentally make you seem slightly insane or at least very egotistical. The hesitant woman on the phone could be a morbidly obese shut-in living with the corpse of her insane mother, or possibly a kittenish bikini model-slash-Ph.D. student in biomechanical engineering; it's hard to tell. She wants to quote sonnets and drop cute lines from popular love songs, because that's what she thinks love is. She doesn't want to talk about herself. Most people are like this. She's blowing a golden opportunity, but it's really hard to explain that to her.
While I coax her to list all her attributes--her lustrous hair, her winning smile, her love of jazz and dark chocolate--I look over a fresh stack of ads. Two suburban divorcees with kids. A guy looking to get spanked. Some woman placing an ad for "a friend." An older man, he says mid-fifties, claims to look mid-forties, but I'm guessing probably mid-sixties, seeking a good time and making a veiled offer of compensation to any "comely, vivacious younger gals who might be reading this." Some people are vague, intentionally so, writing ads filled with cliches and platitudes that could apply to practically anyone, but some are so specific that I haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about. None of them knows what will work, but they are all trying.
"There are two things you need to do," I tell the mystery woman on the phone. "You've told me what you want and that's good, but you also need to tell me who you are. I know, it's not as easy as it sounds, but basically that's all there is to it."
Of course it's trite to say this--but so what? I'm actually interested in who she might be, and not just because I'm paid to ask. After all, I'm not paid very much, but besides that, I know what it's like to be overlooked and ignored. I know how hard it is to get someone, anyone, to stop and take notice, to pay attention, to actually see who you really are. Even the most docile and unassuming among us has a good story they're just dying to tell, an opinion to express, a point of view, but it's hard to find an audience when everyone's so into themselves--their own problems, their own lives. Every week there are three or four hundred new advertisers, and while most of them will never realize I'm here, or contemplate what I must think, those who do demand my complete attention. And I oblige.
This is, perhaps, the reason I'm good at this job: I know how to shut up and listen. I'm sure I don't have any other qualifications to speak of--no Ph.D. in clinical psychology, no degree in social work or behavioral sciences, no prescription pad, nothing that you'd assume would come in handy. There's no certification in matchmaking, nor professional associations, not even a support group. Journalism schools don't bother with the personals, and neither graduating from college nor flunking out of graduate school prepared me in any way for this career. It wasn't my lifelong aspiration to do this; I didn't spend my formative childhood years dreaming up clever ways to abbreviate. I just needed a job, and this was a job that nobody wanted. It's as if we were meant for each other.
I got the job, I assume, because I was the least crazy of everybody else they interviewed, but no one seems to remember exactly. I've been doing this for a long, long time--so long that people don't seem to recall that there was a time when I wasn't here. But everyone agrees now that I'm the right guy for the job, although there's little consensus as to why that is.
Is it stamina? I've certainly developed a strong stomach for all the stupid romantic cliches, and I've made my peace with them--though I'd like, for once, someone who says they're looking for a "partner in crime" to really be looking for a partner in crime--someone with a taste for film noir who can drive a getaway car or provide cover fire. Or am I just naturally sympathetic? It took a while to learn how to cope with people who are very bitter, or desperate, or both; the trick is to have enough tact to not point such things out to these folks. Maybe it's that I have a somewhat more open-minded view of human relations than most people. I don't discriminate based on age, gender, race, class, religion, nationality, education, and, I'm sure, a few thousand other things I can't think of off the top of my head--how could I possibly stand in judgment? The woman babbling on the phone, the people whose ads sit before me in a neat little pile--they all think doing this means that they've reached the bottom of the barrel, the end of the rope, and that they've gone as low as they can go. But you can't be generous out of pity. I honestly envy them a little, and admire them a lot. They're still fighting and hoping, while I'm pushing the disappointment and disillusionment of my own love life to the back of my mind, grateful for the chance to come to work, get outside myself, and listen to someone else.
Besides, I can't act high and mighty. It's bad for business. And I don't want to lose my job--it's the only thing I'm good at. I once wrote a personal ad for a Russian emigre lesbian Orthodox Jew with only the barest English skills and corrected the atrocious spelling of a pair of identical-twin swingers from the south side of town on the same day, before lunch. It's fun like that, all the time, every day.
The poor, shy woman on the phone, the one who didn't know what to say, has been talking nonstop for more than ten minutes, and in that time I've heard all about her bike ride last summer through the south of France, how she cried when her pet ferret died, and that she's allergic to peanuts but still loves peanut butter. Being a gentleman, I've said very little. Most of the time I'm so quiet, people don't even realize that I'm there, which is how I prefer it. After all, this isn't about me.
That's another reason why I love this job. It reminds me that love means knowing it's never, ever, ever about you. If her personal ad works--and I give no guarantees--this woman will learn, like all the others, that love isn't at all the thing they say it is in poetry or romance novels or movies. The thing about being in love, I think, is that while it's about two people, it's never just about you. It's listening more than talking, or at least it's supposed to be.
From the Trade Paperback edition.