One evening in early November, sitting down to eat dinner alone, I picked up the Chicago Reader and flipped halfheartedly through the personal ads. I stopped at this one: “Psyche-oriented, sensitive, progressive explorer/artist/shaman . . . seeks conscious, perceptive, emotionally and intellectually strong woman of integrity who knows it’s time to simplify and move on.”

It was so unlike the usual “I love to walk in the rain” ads, that I called the personals line and listened to his phone message. His voice was warm, unpretentious, nervous. To my surprise, I left a message about whatever came into my head: having two teenage daughters, living in the suburbs, being forty-six, traveling to India, being a non-drinking vegetarian, meditating — all undesirable in the singles world. Somewhere in the middle of the message I felt the absurdity of it all and laughed.

It was my laugh that got him. When we met, I liked him but wasn’t immediately attracted. Tall, gray-haired, a little overweight, slow in speech, and shy, he wasn’t the sort of man to whom I was drawn. But when I dropped him off later that night, he kissed me softly on the cheek, and I smiled happily the rest of the way home.

I was impressed by his gentleness. He listened carefully to my daughters, and they liked him. By the holidays, we were in love.

I had already planned my annual spring trip to India to study meditation, but now he didn’t want me to go. I was torn between being who I was and trying to please the man I loved. Eventually I chose not to go; it was my first step in giving myself away.

By summer, we were struggling painfully most of the time. He resented my other interests, my family, my friends. So for the first time in my life, I ended a relationship with someone whom I still loved.

Six months later, my daughters brought home the Reader, and I found myself glancing at the personals, even though I knew I would never answer another ad. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. His latest ad was virtually identical to the one I’d answered, with one exception. In describing what he wanted, he had added, “is both nurturing and independent.” The quality he was looking for was the one he most needed to learn.

Elizabeth Spatz
Buffalo Grove, Illinois

“Medium-sized, thirty-something gay male looking for same. Enjoys fine arts and fitness. New-age beliefs a must.”

I fit the description except for one detail: was I “new age”? I didn’t know what that was, but I decided I was at least open-minded, so I responded to the ad.

We met at a mall to see a movie. If he was new age, it seemed appealing enough: he appeared to exist in a constant state of euphoria. But the truth is it wasn’t his blissfulness that appealed to me but his cute butt. I was attracted to him, so when he talked about his first love — swimming with manatees — I convinced myself I really was interested in spending three times my savings account on diving equipment to commune with sea cows in frigid, freshwater streams.

On our second date, he told me all about the movie we’d seen on our first date — obviously forgetting that I was the person with whom he’d seen it. Was he new age or space age? Finally, I went out and bought his suggested list of new-age books in the hope that we would have more to talk about. But soon I admitted to myself that we had little in common. We spoke once or twice by phone, but no more.

The irony is, though I lost interest in him, I devoured the books. They opened my eyes to the spirit that I had always sensed lived within me, but that I could never find for want of a proper guide.

The Buddha teaches there are many paths to God: I found mine through the personals.

Peter Massey
Bradenton, Florida

I was in my late forties, living alone in an unfinished cabin with no electricity or plumbing in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. I was happy being close to nature, but sometimes wished I had a partner with whom to share my life.

One day in early March, I offered to pick up my neighbor’s mail at the post office because her car wasn’t running. Looking through her copy of Countryside & Small Stock Journal, a magazine for homesteaders, I noticed an ad in the Contacts column: a man close to my age with a forty-acre homestead, a self-described sixties guy, interested in self-sufficiency and deep ecology, looking for a “mountain woman.”

I wrote to him about my lifestyle and values. He replied quickly with a letter and pictures of himself and his place. I was immediately captured by his radiant, impish smile. I sent him hours of taped self-revelation; he sent me music that opened my ears and books that deepened my thinking.

The first time we met in person, we were amazed by our almost-immediate familiarity. Walking in the woods with him that day, I heard him express thoughts that I’d put on a tape but never sent.

On one of my early visits to his place, I walked down his spiral staircase wearing only a pair of his jeans. When he saw me, a strange look came over his face. He told me that, while writing the ad to send to Countryside, he had seen a vision of a woman with long hair coming down those stairs wearing only a pair of his jeans and a big smile.

Shortly after we met, Countryside discontinued its personal ads. We can’t imagine another way we could possibly have met, since both of us were living such hermitlike lives. For me, it was like walking on the beach and finding a bottle with a note in it saying, “Dear Sharon . . .”

This sense of destiny has never wavered. I feel certain our relationship will last the rest of our lives.

Sharon Davis
Amboy, Washington

Four years ago, I confided to one of my co-workers that I was running a personal ad in a Boston weekly. He promised not to tell anyone, but the next day at lunch he blurted out my secret. A woman at the table remarked that anyone who ran a personal ad must be desperate and that she would never run one. My stomach sank.

That night I had my first date with a woman who responded to my ad. Four years later, Caroline and I are still together.

The woman who laughed at me at the lunch table didn’t realize that it’s OK to feel desperate. Why should we be ashamed of how we feel? I desperately wanted to share my love with someone. What could be wrong with that?

Paul Spitalny
Everett, Washington

Although Bruce had a generic personal ad full of key words like dining, conversation, and long walks, he seemed intriguingly eccentric in person. He had unconventional views about nutrition, was a Libertarian, advocated Garrett Hardin’s “lifeboat ethic” philosophy, and played chess.

On our second date I went to his house and learned a couple of other interesting things about Bruce: first, he was impotent; second, he wanted to tie me up. I had a great time all night, but later I worried — maybe he was secretly filming me; what if he’d been an ax murderer?

We dated for another month, but things went downhill after that second night. His idiosyncrasies began to annoy me. And I seriously started to worry when he told me he hated his father and would kill him if he ever came to town. I wasn’t sorry to part company with him.

Bruce kept running ads in the personals, only now he specified that he wanted a “petite” and “submissive” woman.

I ran into Bruce twice after that. Once was when my future husband and I went to the Greek restaurant where Bruce and I had gone on our first date. Bruce was there with a woman (petite and submissive?), and I caught him craning his neck to look at us. I wondered what his date would think of him when she got to know him better.

The last time I saw Bruce was when we passed each other on the sidewalk one day. He hurried away before I could say anything, and I turned and followed. When he saw me behind him, he broke into a run.

Name Withheld

As I ready a stack of newspapers for recycling, I scan the Men Seeking Women section staring up at me from the top of the heap and read, “Grounded in two worlds: artist, businessman . . .” I feel more than a twinge of recognition. Further examination confirms what I already know: the man behind the lousy ad copy is the same one I was married to for fourteen years.

I’m amused that such a spacey person calls himself “grounded,” astounded that a man so cool and detached describes himself as “affectionate,” and that one whose cheapness was an ongoing family joke would dare lay claim to “generous.” But it’s the description of the woman he wants — “sweet, passionate, reverent, fit” — that rubs my still-open wounds raw.

He could never handle a truly passionate woman, I argue to myself; we are too hard to control. And the combination “sweet, passionate, reverent” reminds me of myself at eighteen — when innocence and inexperience longed to be washed away by passion, sexual and otherwise. It’s hardly descriptive of women his age — our age — many of whom have had babies, miscarriages, abortions; who, perhaps, have fought death with chemotherapy and been left bald and missing a breast: menopausal women.

I make plans to call the number, but I’m not sure exactly what I will do: Leave a message? Have someone else arrange a meeting? As I review the possibilities, I notice the date: the paper is a week old, the ad expired.

Name Withheld

Several years ago, I answered an ad in the Maine Times. After a return letter and a phone call, I agreed to meet Helen.

She lived on a beautiful lake surrounded by large white pines and rustic cabins. I found her in the driveway shoveling snow. She was very obese, with frizzy black hair and a poor complexion. I got out of the car, and we went in to drink tea. Helen confided that the other man who had answered her ad had pulled away when he saw her in the driveway.

That evening Helen took me out to see a band. Though the roads were slick, she drove fast. The car skidded off into the woods, luckily not hitting any trees. After a tow truck pulled us out, we continued to the bar, where I felt like an outsider as Helen talked to her friends.

Later that night we made love. Helen said it must be nice to be able to have lovers whenever I wanted, rather than having to take what I could get, the way she had to.

I left in the morning, and we never saw each other again.

William Monroe
Ithaca, New York

The man I met through the personals seemed like everything I was looking for: bright, funny, charming, seasoned but not bitter, valued at his job, and a good cook. He danced effortlessly, told good jokes, loved to sail, and planned activities with his ten-year-old son every weekend. What’s more, he was handsome. (I hadn’t even asked for that.)

He moved in with me and said he wanted to make a lifelong commitment. I wanted to commit to him, too. Everything seemed so easy and perfect. So why did I feel that something wasn’t right? Maybe, he said, it was some unresolved issue from my childhood. Why didn’t I quit work for a year or so, he asked, let go of the tension and constant pressure, and just concentrate on plans for our wedding?

I quit my job and drew up the extended guest list. Just before I sent out the wedding invitations, we had a minor disagreement. But instead of doing what we always did — sit down and hear each other out — he told me that he’d had it: he was leaving.

I asked him what had made this disagreement so different from all the others. He told me he’d been having a mental argument with his ex-wife all the time we’d been together. He was trying to prove through our relationship that he was all the things she’d accused him of not being: thoughtful, considerate, supportive. Now that he’d proved it, he was leaving.

It took me a while to realize that he was exactly the man I needed at the time: one who could teach me to listen to my intuition above all else.

Linne Gravestock
Sacramento, California

I was sitting in my favorite spot in the atrium, ignoring the open book in front of me, gazing dreamily out the window at the dogs playing on the lawn. The only other people around were five or six clean-cut-looking guys in T-shirts and baseball caps, trying equally hard to study at a nearby table. “Frat boys,” I said to myself, dismissing them as uninteresting.

Then I noticed clean-cut boy number one was looking at me. They’re making fun of me, I thought, because I don’t look like the sorority type and I’m not studying with five other people who look just like me. I turned away, trying to appear bored and unaffected.

I tried to read my book, but felt too distracted. I looked up (nonchalantly) and saw that Mr. Clean-Cut was staring right at me. I don’t have to take this, I thought. I gathered up my books and hurried out the door.

Two days later, as I was reading the college newspaper, my eyes were drawn to two bold words in the personals: “Beautiful Brunette.” I continued reading: “Studying alone in the atrium on Wednesday between 1:00 and 1:30 P.M.; round, gold earrings and long hair parted on the far left side. We exchanged glances more than once. Respond in personals if interested.”

I never answered the ad, but I did cut it out. Five years later, I still have it.

Jill Dewey
Boulder, Colorado

“Full figured” means fat. “Positive thinker” means Pollyanna. “Inner beauty” means fat and unattractive. “Health conscious” means eats too much and tries unsuccessfully to work it off in a health club. “Seeks someone to share life’s ups and downs” means needs chauffeur and handyman. “Mature” means fat and frumpy. “Christian values” means does not like sex and will partake of it only to reward exceptional service. “People person” means spends most free time on the telephone. “Spiritual” means believes in wishful thinking. “Loves to read” means scans newspaper ads and perhaps an occasional diet article in Cosmopolitan. “Average weight” means overweight. “Loves music” means listens to pop radio from wakeup to lights out. “Many and varied interests” means likes to shop in lots of different stores. “Seeks traveling companion” means needs a ride to the airport and someone to carry luggage. “Interested in personal growth” means things will be OK if you can grow enough to accommodate her. “Seeker of truth” means has already found all the answers.

Kenneth C. Healy
Auburn Hills, Michigan

The personals are too impersonal for me.

A friend of mine has placed ads in the personals for years but still has no girlfriend. The last time I talked to him, he was discouraged because several hopefuls he interviewed from his ads had recognized his voice within minutes — he’d known them for years. Those are the people you should start with, I said. What’s wrong with loving somebody you know?

When we turn to the personals, we’re looking for a stranger to fix our life. The best friends I’ve ever had I met through other friends, or work, or going to church, or loving the same thing. My wife and I met waiting tables in a failing natural-foods restaurant. If we’d read each other’s personals, we’d never have answered them.

Open your eyes. Love is very near.

Gary Phillips
Silk Hope, North Carolina

I was thirty-five, recently separated from a fourteen-year marriage, living in a tiny, unfurnished apartment in a new city, and hopelessly lonely.

I’d thrown a lot of caution to the wind to be there in the first place. As my finger rested on “Men Seeking Women,” I thought, Why not? I found an ad and wrote a reply. It gave me something to do. It gave me hope. And it scared me.

The man who had placed the ad was experienced at dating through the personals and suggested we meet at a neutral, public place. When we met, he asked questions: Was my divorce final? No. Had I gone back to my maiden name? No. Was I pregnant? No. I thought, He’d be good at job interviews.

Then he turned to advice: Finalize your divorce. Don’t carry around his name because other men won’t like it. Be glad you aren’t pregnant. Finally, he said I was an interesting conversationalist and should do well at dating. He gave me his phone number and told me to call if I’d like to watch South Pacific in his basement.

He wasn’t particularly old or young, handsome or ugly, smart or dumb — just an average stranger with some average advice. But he gave a soon-to-be-divorced woman confidence that it might not be that hard, after all.

Kate Miller
Scottsdale, Arizona

I managed to make it to the age of forty-nine years, three months, and sixteen days before succumbing to the temptation to respond to a personal ad. The ad I answered read:

PURRRRRRING CATS WELCOME YOU! Abyssinian, Maine Coon, and Manx cats seek exceptional gentleman for their Mom. You must love cats and dogs, as well as wildlife. Our Mom is 50, untall, has red hair, sparkling green eyes, is delightfully witty, tender, compassionate, loving, and loyal. Marriage is ultimate goal, but you must pass our inspection/approval first! Meeowww!

OK, so it was silly. But I also had three cats. In my response, thinking I was being light and humorous, I referred to my cats as “mutts, two of whom are strays who adopted me.”

“Mom” called me back on Valentine’s Day, beginning our first conversation by seriously chewing me out for referring to my cats as “mutts.” Before I got the chance to defend my choice of words, I was roundly accused of pet neglect, animal abuse, and various other crimes against wildlife because I actually allowed my cats to venture outdoors.

My part of the conversation went something like this: “But . . . yes, but . . . well, I . . . yeah, but —” at which point “Mom” interrupted my comments to say, “Well, I think this is as far as we’re going to go!” And then she hung up.

Amazing! I thought. We just met, talked, argued, and broke up, all in the space of three minutes.

Samuel Wilson III
Vashon Island, Washington