I Warned You Not to Touch That

Book

Review of 95 Chances for Love & 1st Chapters

by on Dec.27, 2009, under Book

Amusing and engaging (5/5 stars)

Before reading this book, when I found out about its topic, I thought to myself that there was definite potential in the idea. Learning about the author’s experience after he decided to post a personal ad in a New York newspaper in 1985, discovering the traits of the women who answered, and finally finding out if the quest was successful, definitely appealed to my curiosity. But I never expected the experience to be as good as it ultimately was, since the book delivered much more than what it promised.

Bill Riddle writes with an approachable style, taking us on the journey as if we were his old-time friends, and showing us the good, the bad and the ugly from his experience. He does this while using fine humor that never gets old. Sometimes he made me smile, sometimes chuckle, and in other instances he caught me unaware and made me explode in laughter that drew weird looks from my wife. But it is not only the humorous characteristic of this book that makes it so good, since the author uses the technique of switching topics frequently and efficiently to keep our interest at its max. For me, this aspect moved the work from the very good category into the excellent one.

When I finally found out about the result of Riddle’s search, I felt like I had been a part of the journey and felt sad it was over. I recommend this book wholeheartedly and without any reservations.

Sebastian Fernandez

Book reviewer,  Amazon.com

Below are the first three chapters of a completed manuscript.  I seek representation, should you happen to be or know of a good agent.  Alright, I’d settle for a mediocre agent, I think.   

 

95 Chances for Love 

  

Chapter 1 – Sleepless In Manhattan

     

Finding love can be like eating soup with a fork.  At a soccer match in ninth grade, I saw a pretty, slim longhaired girl who was every preppy boy’s fantasy.  I maneuvered so we were next to each other.  Before long, we were talking and getting along like fish and water.  Her friendliness gave me confidence and she laughed at my witty observations.  I gladly spent thirty minutes watching the boring game just to be in her company.  Finally, I screwed up my nerve and asked if she’d like to go out sometime.  She thanked me for my invitation and, just when I thought I’d closed the deal, she told me something I’ve never forgotten.  “I’m sorry, I thought you knew.  I’m Mr. Domrick’s wife.”  Yes, the soccer coach’s wife.  Talk about clueless.

Perhaps my lack of awareness stemmed from my early years socializing with poultry rather than humans.  My three siblings and I grew up in a rural Connecticut farmhouse, complete with chickens and the classic big, red barn out back.  Our nearest neighbor lived a quarter mile away.  Aside from spilling out of my mother’s muddy green 1949 DeSoto at thirty-five mph, my childhood was reasonably calm and uneventful. 

Of the many benefits to falling out of a speeding car at age five, my favorite was having my head bandaged to look like a swami.  Not many mystics hung out at Hartford Hospital wearing plaid pajamas.  Since they were a rarity in Connecticut, people young and old flocked to me with one burning question.  “What happened to you?”  I divided my answers into two categories.  One for adults and one for kids.  For adults, I had to tone down the story. 

We were on the interstate when my older sister said, “Let’s open the car door and see if the pavement looks blurry.  You go first.”  I grabbed the door handle, swung out, and dangled over the road to get a closer look.  I hung on until she started tickling me.  When I let go, I bounced down the highway like a bag of laundry.

For kids, all bets were off.

My big sister owed money to Tommy Wingurtzman and there wasn’t enough in my piggy bank to pay him.  When I wasn’t looking, she tied me up and told him he could kick me in the head for a dollar a pop.  After paying Tommy, she had enough left over to buy a pony.

Somehow, I survived childhood and, not for lack of effort on my part, went off to college a virgin.  St. Pauli Girl beer has an ad.  The tagline goes something like, “You always remember your first girl.”  Fortunately, for me, there was a first girl.  God bless her.  Sherry Stromberg.  A nice Swedish girl.  Well, not directly from Sweden but who was I to be fussy?  I met her while home on Christmas break.  I’ve always admired the Scandinavians’ relaxed attitude about nudity and sex.  A blonde, Nordic goddess who could have posed for the beer ad, Sherry was an honest-to-God “older” woman.  Poor Sherry.  I’m sure our passion was much more memorable for me than for her.  Still, the drought was over. 

My track record for meeting women was far from stellar.  I managed to bumble along somehow and eventually learned I had better luck in Cambridge than Boston.  Maybe it was the town’s leftward tilt.  Maybe I was more comfortable and familiar with Cambridge since I lived there.  Maybe my small town brain found the scale easier to digest. 

Despite my ineptitude, I met a number of smart, beautiful women at parties, bars, school, even sailing.  In 1983, at the height of the Madonna craze, I went to Miami for a wedding.  I had long avoided Florida, convinced that something in the water turned hair blue.  I spotted a lovely young woman at the posh Grand Bay Hotel’s Friday happy hour.  At the time, they used the Grand Bay in the hit television series Miami Vice.  I figured, if it was good enough for Don Johnson, I should try it.  Rita wore an elegant grey business suit with a porcelain silk blouse.  She drew me in with her whimsical smile and curls the color of wedding rings. 

We began our whirlwind romance with me living in Boston and she in Miami Beach.  After a year of commuting for love, I proposed and she moved to Boston.  I remember thinking how happy we’d be when she left her apartment to live with me.  What did I know?  Living together went horribly awry from the outset.  Things began to unravel when she lost her cat in the move and continued downhill from there.  Conflict was part of Rita’s Jewish heritage.  Three thousand years of oppression and survival.  She told me, “My family always fights at the dinner table” as though this was something good.  Like saying, “our Brazilian chef makes mango chutney that’s divine.”  At one point, after a particularly draining argument, she said, “I know we can make this work.  You can make anything work if you try hard enough.”  Unfortunately, I believed her.  I now understand that theory works no better for cars without wheels than for interpersonal relationships. 

In 1986, I had the frothy idea of going to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City.  For some reason, Columbia wanted students to attend a new, small program in Real Estate Development.  Possibly to ensure its real estate program didn’t devolve into an academic meat market, Columbia decided on a male-female ratio of nine to one.  Two of the five women in the program were married.  If only I’d chosen nursing. 

 It didn’t take long before I realized I was out of my dating comfort zone in Manhattan, much the way I felt when I sought love in Boston.  With opportunities so limited at school, I’d have to get creative.  Try something different.  Go where only the desperate had gone before.  Place a personal ad.

***

      When I opened the large, white, rumpled New York Magazine envelope and dumped the letters on the table, one stood out.  I stared at the replies to my personal ad with a mixture of curiosity, hope, and skepticism.  1987 arrived days earlier in the Big Apple.  My eyes gazed at the 8½ x 11 manila envelope, a lump of hope inside of me.  The sender used Scotch tape as an extra security measure.  God forbid the normal, gummed seal and clasp failed.  This could hold the hopes of a lonely single guy inside its flat, constricted walls.
      Before considering how the writer addressed it, think back to your first grade teacher.  Remember her?  It was always a “her,” at least it was when I grew up in the Neolithic Age.  Mine was Mrs. Richardson.  I loved her.  She looked like Grace Kelly, only with dark curly hair.
      I also loved my classmate Paula McLave.  I’d known her since kindergarten but, not wanting to rush things, waited until first grade to tell her.  She seemed receptive.  The day after I told her, she stopped me with a sad look on her face.  I asked, “What’s wrong?”  She explained, “I’m sorry but I can’t marry you.  My parents said we couldn’t because you’re not Catholic.”  At least our age wasn’t a problem.
      Mrs. Richardson had the BEST handwriting.  Her ramrod straight letters and sublime arcs always ended perfectly. 

      The handwriting on the envelope was almost as perfect as Mrs. Richardson’s.  In fact, for one scary moment, I wondered if she was the one writing me.  My respondent used simple, controlled block letters.  There would be no confusing cursive for this address.  No red ink, felt-tipped pen or other untested way to write.  These were pure letters.  Carefully formed.  Skillfully constructed.  She even spelled out New York twice, just like the helpful guide in the “Personals” section recommended.

      The glue, Scotch tape, and metal clasp gave way to an elegant, 7×10 black, handcrafted card.  She placed a pink hand-cut heart in the center and outlined the edge in a darker pink.  It was a masterwork.  Was her last name Hallmark?  I hesitated.  How could anything inside compare with the sophisticated beauty of the exterior?
      Her card more than met my expectations.  On the left panel was a professionally taken full-length color picture of an elegant, ivory-skinned temptress.  She could have chaired any number of boards or fit in nicely on the social pages.  Her long, slender fingers were, no doubt, the result of years of piano training.  Her turquoise eyes said, “I know you want me.”
      What a dazzling effect.  The right panel had a pink letter to match the pink heart on the cover.  The black construction paper served as the perfect frame for the letter.  Before even reading it, my eyes darted to the signature.  Who was this woman?  Who would take the time to create such a masterpiece and send it to me? 

Jean Carol Shifton.

She said volumes with her exquisite presentation.  What more could she add with words?  

Jean began with:

      “Sure to please” me?  I could see that.  This was the standard to which all future replies would be measured.  The undefeated season.  Bowling 300.  2400 on the SAT.  I read slowly, trying to make the moment last.  Her handwriting was controlled, deliberate, yet soft and flowing.  The blue ink sat well on its pink background.  Could this be the woman of my dreams?  Had I discovered the motherlode of love?
      Why did love and happiness have to be so elusive?  With millions of beautiful women to choose from, how could I not meet someone in New York City?  After all, I had an IQ greater than an onion, lived above the poverty line, and knew enough to refrain from singing.  What’s not to love?  Apparently, plenty.  Despite my best efforts, I was still sleepless in Manhattan and unable to find Ms. Right.

 

Chapter 2 – Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

 

      You’d think writing a personal ad would’ve been easy for a seasoned marketing person like me.  New York Magazine sure tried to make it that way.  They produced an attractive glossy 244-page magazine.  It came with two crossword puzzles, TV and radio listings, and an ad for the Helmsley Palace featuring that loveable future convict, Leona Helmsley.
      The ad for the Helmsley Palace was a classic.  Leona, draped in a shimmering gold blouse and black floor-length skirt, had her hair arranged to best accentuate her diamond drop earrings and coordinated tiara.  Posed at an elegantly set dining table, the look on her face said she might carve up a few guests as appetizers if things didn’t go her way.  The caption said it all.  “It’s the only Palace in the world where the Queen stands guard.”
      You may recall, Leona had an aversion to paying taxes.  In fairness, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Damn, I wish my tax bill was higher this year.”  Plus, I’m sure Queen Elizabeth doesn’t pay them.  Nonetheless, Leona felt taxes were the burden of “the little people.”  I think those were her words and I don’t believe she meant those short in stature.  Of course, it made perfect sense that, as the wife of a billionaire, she’d pay less to the government than a busboy at her “Palace.”
      Naturally, the Feds busted her.  I hoped, when she got out of prison, she would write some uplifting memoir about her life behind bars.  Perhaps she’d include a discussion of haute cuisine in a federal pen.  Possibly, some mention of her tireless work instructing cellmates in the fine art of linen selection.  As a title, Queen of the Slammer came to mind.
      Had I gotten the magazine’s media kit, I’m sure I would’ve learned the publication was a magnet for New York’s finest women.  Consider the advertisers.  Bloomingdales offered 25-50% off on your choice of mink, fox, raccoon, beaver, or coyote.  Coyote?  The Four Seasons, in their “Thirteenth annual love letter to New Yorkers” went with:

“…Chef Renggli’s insistence on hot and spicy flavors as the delicious substitute for salt keeps winning new converts, while our distinctive Spa entrée Skewer of Shrimp and Chicken with Bulghur became one of our most favored dishes.”

       Was this my target market?  I couldn’t say I’d always hoped for a coyote jacket, or even a date wearing one.  Still, at 50% off, it was tempting.  And what about Bulghur?  That’s something edible?  I thought it was an Eastern Bloc country.  I figured I’d get a better idea by reading the personals myself.
      After wading through the sizable classified area, I reached my destination.  A section called Strictly Personals with five pages of hopeful desperation.  As I studied the women’s and men’s ads, a pattern emerged.  Men and women promoted different things.  Guys emphasized security and women their looks.  I suppose this should come as no surprise.  Even with woman’s liberation, our culture still views men as the primary breadwinners.
      Since the ads sold for twenty-five dollars per line, you could almost guess the writer’s financial picture, or level of desperation, by the ad size.  Mine was eight lines.  That might seem like a lot, but others were even larger.  Consider the following plea lasting nineteen lines:

                              Catch The Rhythm- If you’re shapely
                              and the words are right/we’ll sin in the
                              morning and mambo at night.  This may
                              read unusual but I mean what I say/will
                              it matter in a month that we met this way?
                              I’m a self-made millionaire with sexy toes
                              and I even look better without my clothes.
                              I like my work and you’ll love to play/with
                              this handsome, younger Jewish Fernando
                              Rey.  Strong moral values: I don’t smoke
                              or eat scallions/intelligent gambling won
                              me my millions.  I’ve practiced ‘till perfect,
                              gained a national reputation/now relaxed
                              with my talent, I like to vacation.
                              Suggestions are welcomed, directions are
                              not/lose your mind but keep your work and
                              we’ll be hot.  If you know how to ship but
                              prefer to kiss/let’s gamble more than money
                              in St. Moritz.

      What an ad.  I considered getting a sex change operation, just to be able to cruise to St. Moritz with him.  Well, actually, I did have a few concerns, albeit minor ones.  With a scant physical description other than “sexy toes,” I had a hard time getting a visual on him.  Was he a slab of whale meat?  Who was Fernando Rey?  He wanted me to “sin in the morning.”  What kind of girl did he think I was?
      Let’s face it, he wanted a hooker, and I’ve never charged a dime for my love.  His line, “will it matter in a month that we met this way?” said a lot about how people viewed the personals.  I will say this for him, he did provide a visual cue for those who knew what Fernando Rey looked like.  A quick, present-day online search revealed Fernando wasn’t my type, though he did appear in both French Connection movies.  I’m guessing, the advertiser might have had some luck finding a gold digger, but how likely would true love bloom from such an ad?
      In my opinion, what “Fernando” did wrong was harp on his wealth, if he wanted to find real love.  I know.  Mothers have long told their daughters, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.”  That said, I always thought women wanted the “sensitive type” who liked to cuddle by the fire and take them for long, romantic walks on the beach.  As long as he was stinking rich.
      I can hardly blame women for wanting it all.  That’s what guys want too.  I once placed a roommate-wanted ad in the Boston Phoenix as a joke.  I made something up I thought wouldn’t attract a single soul, just to see what happened.  The ad went something like this:

Roommate wanted.  Non-smoker.  Prefer a
“never home” mousey type who enjoys tender
moments with bowls of wheatgrass and
contact with hardwood floors.  Apply in
person at 7½ Centre St., Cambridge.

      I deliberately left off my phone number and couldn’t imagine anyone replying.  Weeks after the ad ran my doorbell rang.  It was some tall, underfed guy covered with a light patina of sweat.  He’d seen my ad.  Whoa.  After conducting an initial threat assessment, I determined he was a bit mousey and even had a thing for hardwood floors.  Best of all, he was a professional dishwasher, so my cleanup worries were over.  Learning such bizarre people floated around in society made me realize there was someone for everyone, even me.  The dishwasher seemed disappointed when I told him I’d already found a roommate.  Well, I couldn’t exactly explain it was all a joke, could I?
      Several of the personals ads lacked substance.  Some advertisers took a “less is more” approach.  I suppose, in a Zen way that might work.  If I wanted Zen, I’d have tried the personals section of Zen Monthly.  I couldn’t imagine finding someone with only two lines.  One ad whispered:

                              Fine Arts-And classical music lover, 51
                              seeks lady to share same.

Another said:

                              Accountant, Warm Exciting-60 Young
                              seeks playful friend/lover.

Perhaps this was the skinniest:

                              Dermatologist-Seeks thin, attractive
                              female 20-35.  Phone photo.

None of them gave me much to go on.  The following confused me:

                              Life is Play-For mortal stakes.  Male
                              mid 40’s, divorced, attorney.  Jewish
                              beliefs/Catholic tastes/Protestant ethic/
                              Zen perspective – healthy sense of the
                              ridiculous.  Seeks female teammate.
                              Let’s be one another’s best.  Note/phone,
                              please.  Photo if you prefer. 

      He certainly covered most of the religious cards in the deck.  Catholic tastes?  Did he like the little wafers doled out at communion?  I thought the ad seemed too wordy to have a Zen perspective.  What worried me most was playing for mortal stakes.  He might be better than Fernando, assuming you lived long enough to get to know him.
      Why couldn’t we have it all?  In a city the size of New York, there had to be someone for everyone.  What about the women?  What sort of ads were they placing?  Just as many guys alluded to their fat bank accounts, a number of women promoted their sex appeal. 

This one seemed seductive:

                              Sweet-Smart-Stunning-Slim – Straw-
                              berry blond attorney, 37, seeks single
                              Jewish business or professional man
                              35-42, who is sincere, stable and
                              supportive.  Photo/phone. 

So did this:           

                              Dark, Pretty, Slim – Dry wit, warm style.
                              36, 5’6”, Jewish.  Aim to enjoy Letterman
                              Show with my 30’s-40ish, sweet compadre.
                              Photo?

      The Letterman Show was her goal?  If she were that pretty, I thought she’d end up there.  Religious preferences were rampant in the ads.  I even considered, for a few fleeting moments, converting to Judaism.  I just thought it might be too much to handle after having the sex change operation to be with Fernando.
      Much as I looked for it, I didn’t find the classic ad I expected.  The profile of what every female wanted.  Were New York women afraid to dream big?  I had nearly given up when the following caught my eye:

                              I am Looking For You-A man, mostly
                              happy in your life and, as myself, fulfilled
                              in your creative work world, but missing a
                              partner to share the special fun two people
                              can share together.  Cooking special dinners,
                              country walks, bicycle rides, traveling to
                              faraway places, fireplace talks, exploring
                              and sharing each other’s eyes and dreams.
                              Fun-loving, caring and wanting to be cared
                              about, this attractive, slim, shapely lady, of
                              50 years is looking for you.  No smoking please.

      She nailed it.  I admired her courage and candor.  What an inspiring, romantic ad. 

      Of course, it was a complete waste of $300.  No guy wants that.  Not even Dr. Phil. Guys don’t care about all the mushy, sensitive, romantic babble.  We pay lip service to it because we have to.  How else can we expect to propagate and ensure the survival of the species?  I think if women were smart, they would get a guy to write an ad for them talking in terms of the male’s highly refined interests.  I’ll throw a great sample ad out, just to be helpful. 

                              Sexy, sexy, sexy, hot, sexy woman with
                              cover girl face and playmate body seeks
                              ATM.  I love lingerie and spending loud
                              mornings waking up the neighbors with my
                              screams of passion.  My job as a contortionist
                              gives me a flexible schedule and body.

      I’m sure most women probably aren’t willing to be so revealing.  Nonetheless, I’ll bet if ten straight, sane, single guys saw this ad, all ten would be interested.  I know.  We’re as deep as a birdbath. 
      So, to be successful, I would have to write a male version of the “I am Looking for You” ad.  Throw in a pinch of visual imagery, stir it up, and submit it to New York Magazine.  How hard could that be?  I thought the most taxing part would be fitting all the letters in the tiny little boxes they made you use in the Strictly Personals coupon.
      But what visual cue would entice women?  I’d have to pick a celebrity most people knew.  Sadly, Fernando Rey was already in use.  Just whom did I look like?  I thought I might stretch things a bit and pick one of the hottest stars of the 80s, Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame.  We weren’t exact look-a-likes, but there was some sketchy similarity.  Although he had much better hair, we were both passable in t-shirts and Armani jackets.
      Despite being on the right side of the law as a vice cop in Miami, Don’s character, Sonny Crocket, had a bad boy image.  He lived off the grid on his boat at the marina surrounded by supermodels, Ferraris, and million dollar yachts.  In real life, Don was a stud too.  An A-list celebrity who dated the crème de la crème.
      I hoped my ad’s visual reference to Don would work but wanted to be careful not to scare away women looking for the stable, romantic guy.  I needed to somehow embrace Don and distance myself from him at the same time.  This would require finesse.  I settled on the following:

 

      I thought it covered as much of what I was seeking as I could for $200.  I wondered who, if anyone, would reply?
      Ninety-five women to be exact.  They wrote from as far away as Baton Rouge and Toronto.  The vast majority were neighbors of a sort, living or working near me on the island of Manhattan.  It amazed me to hear from so many women who were taking a chance at finding love through the personals.  Just who were they?

 Author - On a good hair day

 Don-Great hair every day!  

    

Chapter 3- Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

 

      As I view these women today, I realize they were much more attractive than I’d grasped at the time.  Maybe, at age thirty-five, I hadn’t matured enough to have the perspective I now have.  Of course, that’s a polite way of saying I was an idiot.  While reading these letters twenty-one years later, I often ask myself, “What was wrong with her?”  “Why didn’t you call that one?”  “Are you blind?”  Some were beautiful, some full of wit and some very strange.
      The ninety-five chances for love came in all shapes and sizes.  The largest was a 10×13 envelope from an actress named Jane Vane.  Her 8×10 headshot included her name and phone number.  The next line said, “(On Camera:  Jayne Karma).”  I imagined her as a cast member of some daytime soap like Days of Our Lives, a dramatic outburst simmering right below the surface. 

“But, Ashley, Steve always wanted me.”
“That’s a lie!  Stay away from him you slut…he’s mine.”

      Was she the classic home wrecking vamp?  From her picture, she might have been.  Her steely eyes belonged on a shark.  Her thin red lips and straight white teeth said, “Feeding time.”
      She might’ve been as sweet as Godiva chocolate, but I’d never know.  Along with a brief typed note, she included the following personal ad she’d considered running herself:

                                          RAISED BY NUNS…WDF now a feisty,
                                          vivacious fashion editor.  MA.  Former
                                          model and commercial actress.  5’8” thin,
                                          auburn hair, very blue eyes.  Love sports,
                                          esp. good at tennis, skiing.  Looking for
                                          tall, Caucasian, successful athletic man
                                          40-ish to 60-ish with (PLEASE!) a sense
                                          of humor.  PS:  Looks Count! And I do
                                          smoke occasionally.

      What happened to my home wrecking hellcat from Days of Our Lives?  Here are my thoughts on Jane from past and present day perspectives. 

Thirty-five-year-old impression:

I don’t know if I want feisty.  My former fiancé Rita was feisty, and we fought like gladiators.  Why the big envelope and picture?  She’s gotta be in her forties.  She wants 40-ish to 60-ish?  I’m only thirty-five.  She’d consider someone my father’s age?  That’s a scary thought.  Raised by nuns and divorced?  That’s a really scary thought.

Fifty-seven-year-old view:

She is rather pretty and seems real.  I suppose she’s right about looks counting.  There must be a physical attraction or why bother.  Anyone with a sense of humor can’t be too bad.  I wonder if religion is important to her.  I wonder what happened in her first marriage.  Does she have any kids?  I wonder if she’s a hellcat.

      As Noah Cross said in Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”   Jane looks much better to me from my fifty-seven-year-old perspective.  Without a time machine, I’ll just have to imagine what might have been.
      Some letters were sublime.  I opened an exquisite Matisse card from a woman named Helen.  She fell into the category of “Are you blind?”  Her handwriting had a graceful flow that showed discipline and beauty.  Her elegant picture, made me think she’d just returned from an afternoon at Sotheby’s, perhaps acquiring a rare manuscript or Victorian bracelet.  She wore an understated ivory long-sleeved blouse, simple pendant earrings, and pleated linen pants.  Her face exuded an air of warmth and thoughtfulness.  Her dark brown hair was so inviting, if I were a wren, I’d build a nest.  She was fantastic. 

      Her note said she was a beautiful and caring lady.  I believed her.  She wanted to share:

      Dancing in Rio.  What a prospect.  Helen was thirty-six, widowed, no children, Jewish, and spent her weekdays as CEO of a major healthcare organization.  Besides travel, she enjoyed, “the warmth of entertaining close friends and family at my home.”  She included a sizable banquet of priorities.  As I scanned them, I wondered where I’d fall on that list.  Dead spouses have a way of becoming more meaningful after they’re gone.  Especially, if they die young.  Let’s see.

  1. Deceased husband
  2. Her family and friends
  3. Expired husband’s parents
  4. No longer among the living husband’s siblings
  5. Dead husband’s ashes
  6. Departed husband’s beloved chihuahua, “Marmeduke”
  7. Lifeless husband’s nieces and nephews
  8. Gone to his maker husband’s friends
  9. Memories of dancing in Rio with late husband
  10. The Healthcare Organization she ran
  11. Her religion
  12. Me

       There were many tantalizing parts to Helen but I got the impression her plate was full.  I knew I deserved to be someone’s priority and never called.
      I can imagine how difficult it must have been to reply to my ad, or any other for that matter.  None of us likes rejection.  Not getting a call back, after baring your soul, is disappointing.  Even the briefest Xeroxed letter in 1987 took more time and effort than an email reply to an online ad today.  No stamp, no paper, no envelope, no pen.  Simply cut and paste your copy and click send.
      One companion stood out.  Her soulful brown eyes stole my heart.  Never had I met such a charmer.  Soft to the touch, her body would arch in response to my tender caresses.  Often, when we walked together, complete strangers would catch my eye and I knew they were jealous.  She was sweet, loving and playful.  She found countless ways to show me her feelings without saying a word.  Her street smarts were acute but her sensitive side could read any mood.  Perhaps, her best quality was her loyalty.  She made the Pope’s Swiss Guard seem detached.  How she grew such long nails, I’ll never know.
      Her facial hair never bothered me.  The colors combined like a butterscotch sundae.  When I rescued her, Scylla was a street mutt.  For many years, including my stay in New York, she was my charming, funny sidekick.  Named after a figure from Greek mythology, she looked nothing like the six-headed monster guarding the Strait of Messina.  She resembled an overweight reindeer with tan barrel chest and spindly legs.  With her ears pinned sheepishly down and head cowering, she brought abasement to a new level.  I felt guilty for implying any malfeasance.
      Scylla could charm the stripes off a zebra.  Before I adopted her, the streets of Cambridge were her own buffet line.  With a regular circuit of backdoors to visit, her menus varied from leftovers to fresh canned goods and, occasionally, even dry food.  Everyone loved Scylla.  Naturally, she was an opportunist.  Her favorite targets were new friends. 

Scylla as hostess:

Ahh company.  Welcome, welcome.  It’s nice to have you here.  Come in and make yourselves at home.  Can I get you something to eat?  A light snack or, perhaps, more filling fare?  I do have a freshly roasted chicken.  Of course not…it’s noooo trouble at all.  I’ll only be a minute.  Make yourselves at home.

Dance of the sugar plum fairy drifts through her mind

There you are.  Why don’t I set it here on the coffee table?  The bathroom?  It’s right around the corner to your left.  Take your time.

      Were she able to read, I’m sure Scylla would’ve helped me sift through the possibilities.  Raquel sent me a Sierra Club card of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.  The tasteful image bore an irresistible classic beauty.  She didn’t enclose her picture but wrote the following description:

 

      From her artistic card, it was clear she had good taste and, while I avoid cannibalism, I’m sure she tasted good.  I called Raquel because these “facts” were enticing.  Ordinarily, I would’ve asked her to send me a picture but the chemistry was so good on the phone I decided to meet her in person.  We agreed to meet after work, six o’clock, at one of Columbus Avenue’s popular nightspots.  I was so excited I got there fifteen minutes early.
      I sat at the warm, mahogany bar watching the door expectantly.  I waited for the 1987 iteration of Medusa to come in.  An exquisite temptress, preferably without the snakes.  I have nothing against snakes.  It’s just that they can be a distraction when they’re crawling around in your date’s hair.  Columbus Avenue was a hot spot, a molten meadow for the beautiful people.  I knew Raquel was one of them.  I even thought her name was sexy.  I kept an eye on the door as I nursed my Glenlevit and, every time a “virtual knockout” entered the bar, I thought it had to be Raquel.  Tick tock, tick, tock.  Was she standing me up?  What would she be wearing?  Where was she?
      Finally, at six-fifteen, the door opened and Raquel looked me in the eye and smiled.  Life is full of moments that bring you from bliss to despair quite unexpectedly.  Falling off the stage after accepting your diploma.  Scoring a goal for your opponent.  Having your election reversed in a recount.
      I remember being at my grandmother’s house in my twenties.  She was one of my favorite people in the world.  A minister’s wife who lived in New Hampshire, Grandma’s home was as antique as she was.  With wavy silver hair and blue eyes that knew the gaze of respect, her smile rarely rose above a horizontal line.  She once mused about mining the gold electroplate on dinnerware bought at a church raffle.  Despite being legally blind, she managed to keep things cleaner than most people with good vision did.
      One evening, Grandma was watching the Lawrence Welk Show.  Because of her partial blindness, she turned sideways to see the TV.  Lawrence loved to play “Champagne music.”  I believe they called it that because it was better experienced after copious amounts of bubbly.  You could tell the show’s demographic by its sponsor, Geritol.  His band had an accordion player named Myron Floren and the senior set loved this wholesome entertainment.
      One of the things Lawrence liked to do was showcase his dancers.  Bobby and Cissy were the stars on the Welk show.  When he wasn’t wearing some outlandish dance ensemble, Bobby wore tight dark pants and floral shirts with elephantine collars.  Cissy kept her hem a few inches above the knee in dresses abloom with orange and gold.  Besides being clean-cut, they ripped up the dance floor.  I watched as Bobby took Cissy for a spin.  They flew out of the wings like an exploding watch spring, whirling, spinning, and twirling like dervishes.  Their footwork and leg kicks were so well choreographed I watched in amazement.
      After Cissy and Bobby finished their number, Lawrence asked if anyone in the audience would like to dance with Bobby.  That’s like asking a woman, lost in the desert for three days, if she’d like a ride to the nearest oasis.  After nearly having a riot, they restored order and picked a lucky woman named Shirley.  Shirley was much younger than the show’s demographic.  Maybe that’s why they chose her.  Maybe her uncle worked the soundboard in the mezzanine.  Whatever the reason, Shirley was surely excited.  Her curly brown hair and bangs seemed more country than polka, although I’m not positive I’d recognize polka hair if I saw it.  She wore a short gold dress with white scarf and heels.
      Shirley ran down the steps to the dance floor like the winner of the polka lottery.  Lawrence decided to build the excitement by asking her, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you like to polka?”  Shirley was so excited she burst into a spontaneous demonstration of her polka dancing.  Lawrence had to pull her back to the interview.  Then he asked, “Are you excited about dancing with Bobby?” to which she again went off doing the polka by herself for a few more seconds and had to be roped back in.  At one point Lawrence tried to keep up with Shirley on the dance floor.  Before he collapsed, he waved off the music and gasped, “This girl is too wild for me.”  I had to hand it to Lawrence.  He knew how to milk things.
      At last the moment arrived and, after a few “and a one and a two’s,” the orchestra started playing a polka.  Bobby and Shirley were off to the races.  From my untrained eye, I thought Shirley was every bit as good as Cissy, and possibly better.  She and Bobby were fantastic.  I feared Cissy might, in a fit of jealousy, grab an accordion and hurl it at Shirley.  But she didn’t.  They were twirling and swinging and everything was going so well.  That is until Bobby started swinging her hard and Shirley got on an angle like a gyroscope.  That’s when it happened.  No, Bobby didn’t let go, but Shirley’s wig did.  It scurried across the floor like a large, curly mouse heading for cover.  Poor Shirley. Her head was a tangle of bobby pins and shards of hair. She went running for cover too.  Bobby grabbed the wig and brought it up into the audience where she was still swirling from all the twirling.  Bobby slapped the wig back on her head and that wrapped up Shirley’s night with the stars.
      I tell you this so you’ll understand the importance of visiting your grandparents.  I’m nowhere near the dancer Shirley was, and I don’t look good in a wig, but I had a somewhat similar sensation when I saw Raquel.  The feeling of going from a high to a low in a split second.  I could have lied and said I was someone else.  I could have said, as we shook hands, “I’m sorry I don’t feel the chemistry,” and run out into the lonely streets.  By any measure, Raquel had oversold herself.  With rounded features, pasty skin and a haggard expression, she looked more like a bag lady than a supermodel.  After twenty painful minutes, I left.  I learned that, despite how charming someone sounded on the phone, physical chemistry is important.   Sometimes, late at night, in a dark bar, with the help of alcohol, loneliness broadens the range of possibilities.  On this day, it was too early, too bright and I was too sober for that to happen with Raquel.
      How I wished all the respondents included photos.  Some of them spent considerable effort describing their appearance when a picture would tell so much more.  Beth was an elementary school art teacher who started with the following:

 

       Life has many lessons to teach and I’ve always tried to not make the same mistake twice.  Since my time on this planet is limited, it’s important that I exercise good judgment when deciding who to spend it with.  Long before I knew what dentures were, I attended a piano recital at Mrs. Rotundi’s home.  My older sister was the pianist along with an interminable number of other students.  As the town’s only Italians, the Rotundis had dutifully opened a pizza parlor.  From the size of their home, it was obvious everyone ate there.
      The recitals were always around the holidays.  Perhaps she chose that time of year because of the Christmas music her students could play to torture me.  I’m not sure who ruined Christmas carols for me.  If I had to place blame, I’d say Alvin and the Chipmunks.  

Dave: All right you Chipmunks, Ready to sing your song?
Alvin: I’d say we are
Theodore: Yeah, Let’s sing it now!
Dave: Okay, Simon?
Simon: Okay
Dave: Okay, Theodore?
Theodore: Okay
Dave: Okay Alvin?…Alvin?…ALVIN!!!
Alvin: OKAY!!

      I don’t know about Dave, but I’m sure the chipmunks got a lot more than peanuts for the albums. 

      The Rotundi’s home seemed much nicer than ours.  It was big enough to have a music room, looked like they had actually purchased furniture, and had a paved parking lot instead of a gravel driveway.  After seating us in our gray folding metal chairs, Mrs. Rotondi dimmed the lights, leaving only the piano lit for dramatic effect.  One by one, the students made their way to the gallows.  The boys wore white, button-down shirts, dark pants, and clip-on bow ties.  My sister, Cindy, wore a celadon taffeta dress so wide at the hem, she had to round it up like a wayward calf, just to sit down.
      Church leaders learned in the dark ages that the best way to keep people awake during service was to force them to stand to sing hymns.  With no hymns to sing, recitals can turn to nap time for some.  An old woman sat next to me who could’ve lived in the nursery rhyme’s shoe.  I listened to the strange sucking sound she kept making, rather than the music.  In many ways, I preferred it to the labored chords coming from the front of the room.  It reminded me of the noise kids make when they put one hand under their arm and try to make a fart sound, only quieter.
      It’s always the times when you’re not supposed to laugh when you can’t help it.  Funerals, church confirmations, detention.  Well, that is if you’re a kid.  I listened to the succulent sounds of old fartbag trying to keep from cracking up.  I tried to contain it, but jigs and jags of laughter would seep out.  This was torture.  I thought if I stood up to get away from my scary neighbor, I’d lose it completely – laughter rushing from me like air from a popped balloon.
      Just when I thought I’d blow a gasket, the noise stopped.  Ours is a merciful world.  I listened hard, trying to block out the sound of the piano.  I thought she was still breathing.  I knew if I turned to investigate, I’d betray myself so I sat, eyes glued to the front.  The sound was definitely gone.  In the room, the noise returned to the normal throat clearing, rustling of programs and incessant piano.
      I’d barely brought myself under control when another noise began.  This one I recognized.  Snoring.  Ordinarily, snoring wouldn’t seem funny to me but, because of the circumstances, I found myself desperately trying not to laugh.  It was brutal.  I’d have rather been up on stage forgetting those practiced notes than suffer any more as the seatmate of Grandma Moses.  The snoring continued, gradually getting louder and louder until she added a small fart sound and barely audible plop, like a bird landing in a nest of grass.  This woman had no end to her own recital repertoire.
      By now, it seemed safe to look over.  After all, her snoring meant she was sleeping…right?  I noticed something in the darkness resting on the crease of her lap.  It wasn’t her program.  As I stared harder, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was her teeth.  A slimy pink curve with white mothball slivers planted in neat little rows.  What kind of monster was sitting next to me?  I pulled my eyes away from the spectacle and tried to focus on the music.  The notes sounded sweeter to me…like an escape route back from purgatory.  When the lights finally went up, I made a beeline for the punch bowl, never looking back.
      Just as I learned to choose my seatmates more carefully, I also learned to be wary of rosy descriptions lacking corroborating evidence.  Beth sounded inviting, but I wasn’t willing to take a flyer after my experience with Raquel.  If you’re so attractive, why not send your picture?

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