He was on his way to work, my friend said, and had stopped for gas. That’s when he noticed her. She was walking along the street, the sunlight streaming behind her, too far away at first for him to see her face. But something about her attracted him — the way she walked, perhaps, some swirl of color and motion, the signature her body made with hands and breath and hair. He gazed at her, longingly, furtively, with that look that comes over a man, that look so hopeful and so wretched.
My friend paused and smiled at me wryly.
“Then she got closer and I could see who she was,” he said, with the resigned tone of someone who’d been the butt of a bad joke. In an instant, his longing turned sour: old memories of struggle and blame and defeat overwhelmed him, driving away whatever desire he’d momentarily felt for this beautiful stranger, this too-familiar stranger, this woman who’d once been his wife.
I laughed, though I knew that to him it was dark humor. I’d rarely heard him say a kind word about his ex-wife. Intellectually, he knew better than to blame her; emotionally, he was still bruised, and thus on the defensive — with less-than-tender references to her when he was in my company and a seemingly unfeeling silence when he was in hers. To be so attracted to her, even momentarily, made him feel tremendously vulnerable, as if his defenses had been breached — for they had! Looking at an attractive stranger, aren’t we also looking at what’s incomplete in us, for some angle of beauty where we feel broken, some tenderness where we’ve forgotten how to love ourselves?
My friend’s story was not only poignant but timely; that same week, I was wrestling with the very notion of attraction. I couldn’t say which was more mysterious: the beguiling loveliness of an attractive stranger, or the shimmering surfaces and murky depths of Desire itself.
I was trying to decide, on behalf of The Sun, whether to accept a personals ad.
We’d received an ad from woman subscriber a couple of months earlier. It had been sitting on my desk, staring at me reproachfully. I’d promised to let her know if I was going to use it, but just couldn’t make up my mind.
The ad read:
“Organically grown, SWF artist, writer, musician, linguist, 30’s, shapely, long-haired, dark-eyed beauty looking for a slim, handsome SM (20-45) magical playmate with heart of gold and free spirit to soar with, unfold with, bake bread, travel to South Seas. Please send photo to. . . .”
My dilemma had to do not only with this particular ad but with personals in general. Did I want them in The Sun? Did they serve a useful purpose? In a magazine devoted to the human heart, could anything be wrong with hearts reaching out this way?
Or did such advertising serve our worst fears? Did it speak to one kind of loneliness — the loneliness of people separated from each other — by ignoring the deeper loneliness of people separated from themselves? Did it, in the guise of love, ignore our real attractiveness, deny our real power? I wondered, with two divorces behind me, if I was the right person to decide. I had spent, it seemed, half my life foolishly seeking the heights of love and the other half falling ruinously from them. Could I make a decision that wasn’t indentured to my own fears and painful memories? Yet how do we decide anything except by what we’ve lived through ourselves?
I kept studying the ad, trying to figure out what irked me about it. Like most personals, it seemed a little sad, a brave and foolish attempt to present oneself as flawless, as if what was being described wasn’t a person but a car. We so rarely advertise what’s best in us — our doubts, our contradictions, our woundedness we’ve struggled to bring into the light. The ad, too, struck me as hopelessly wistful in its yearning for a man with no responsibilities but with infinite compassion. It was as if a heart of gold was like a perfect nose or curly hair, something you were or weren’t born with, instead of something earned by taking on such responsibilities as life asks. We all have responsibilities — if not to a spouse or to children then to a job, a friend, the life of a community, the garden we planted that’s now overgrown with weeds. Only in the context of our responsibilities, our rootedness in time and place, does our freedom mean anything. To soar is wonderful, but even balloons have strings.
“And what about men who aren’t slim?” Catherine, our office manager, protested. It’s one thing, she said, to reach out to a kindred soul; it’s another thing to be so choosy about the body that soul arrives in. Might not some men who aren’t slim read the ad and feel a little scorned, left out, weakened in a way we’re all weakened when we imagine we’re not good enough? Unequivocally, but a little guiltily (I prefer slim women), I agreed. We’ve all made slaves of ourselves — women especially — because of someone else’s idea of beauty: dieting because of someone else’s hunger, changing our style because of someone else’s scars. We hide what’s shattered in ourselves behind the plaster cast of beauty that won’t fit, that never fit.
And yet, we each have preferences; it’s as shameful to deny them as to insist that another person conform. Perhaps I was being too harsh. Couldn’t I remember that personals are pleas for help, harmless in themselves, clumsy expressions of genuine feeling? We all get lonely. Some feel it in the depths of their soul, and never speak of it; others feel it like a knife in the groin or a dull throb in the heart. Hands reach out for other hands. Something in us wants to blossom, but remains dark, unborn. So we dream. Haven’t we all dreamt of the perfect stranger? Haven’t we looked into other eyes, hoping to see a perfect reflection of ourselves, or, better yet, a reflection of our perfect selves — I mean our wholeness, which we’ve denied and veiled? Believing ourselves incomplete, we seek completion; how many times, with how many strangers, have we found it? Oh, the joy of thinking we’ve found it! The loneliness that ran in us, endless as a spring flood, turned into a moonlit river; stars came out of a darkened sky. Overnight, we became glorious. The stunted parts of ourselves were forgotten; sorrow seemed to pass like a season, one that could never return. . . . But return it did, as surely as rain falls to earth, and lovers become strangers once again. That depthless moment, when we looked into each other’s eyes, that unbelievable moment when there was no “you” or “I” — where did it go? Were we only dreaming? Was love a lie?
My prejudice — if it’s not obvious — is that love is no lie but that we lie endlessly about it. We lie to each other because we lie to ourselves. We’re in too much pain to see our fantasies for what they are — futile attempts to compensate for the ways in which we’re wounded. We look for someone whose looks and personality, joys and sorrows, discoveries and denials somehow “balance” our own.
Let me tell you, I’ve looked as fervently, embraced as passionately, made love as wildly as any man might — any man whose sorrows were my sorrows, who worshipped. at the same temples during the same endless night. My loneliness called me to my hour of prayer at the altar of someone not myself — someone who (pray God!) needed me, too. How tempting, then, to advertise myself not as supplicant but as savior. To make it convincing, I needed to convince not just her but myself. Indeed, who was more likely to doubt me: to see in the lines of my face what lovers never talk about; to second-guess my most generous gestures — conceived in the darkest hour — when the only kindness I sought was not to be left alone? Would I advertise my great love then, or my great need, or some artful arrangement of the two, like a flower with its thorns? Perhaps she’d want the bouquet anyway. Honesty was advertised, in all honesty. But what was the truth?
I’m still a dreamer who sleeps fitfully. I wake up for a while, then fall back into my dream. In it, my wife is the perfect stranger. When she disappoints me, when I doubt her perfect love — or when I fear she’s doubting mine — the dream shimmers. In the dream, it seems as if love has died. In fact, all that’s died is one more illusion.
I realize that these aren’t universal sentiments, that many people approach this subject more playfully than I. They look at the nighttime sky and see the man in the moon, not dark craters. If romance is an illusion, they might say, so is everything. There’s pathos in that story about my friend’s ex-wife, but there’s also joyful absurdity. There’s artifice in the personals, but there’s an element of theater, too; they’re meant to excite and allure. But that’s the nature of all advertising, so why single out personals in a magazine that accepts other kinds of ads?
I’m not sure I can answer that. I’m ambivalent about advertising in general, and have turned down ads in the past, but this ad brought up stronger-than-usual feelings. The message in it seemed to be: the fantasy in me seeks the fantasy in you. The pain in that yearning may not be obvious to everyone, but it is to me. It’s lodged in the heart, so near and at the same time so distant, buried beneath years of pretending, hard to see. In a way, it’s like the columns of personals. They’re buried in the back of the paper, with their opaque meanings, their cryptic abbreviations. In these strange times, these times of anonymity and grinding isolation, is this how we’re meant to find each other — in the small type, not reading between the lines?